Detroit auto show to host high-tech expo

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

The Detroit auto show has found a way to battle a popular annual technology trade show in Las Vegas.

Automakers have increasingly turned to the CES event in the Nevada desert to unveil their latest autonomous, connected-car and alternative-mobility initiatives. Detroit auto show organizers are hoping to counteract that trend with AutoMobili-D, a dedicated exposition on “the rapidly evolving global automotive and mobility landscape.” The event will take place in Cobo Center during the auto show’s press days, when new cars debut.

AutoMobili-D will put a test track and displays in the 120,000 square feet of the Cobo Center Atrium. More than 100 automakers, suppliers and technology startups are expected to host demonstrations and discussions at the North American International Auto Show.

Show organizers say the expo will expand upon auto show premieres. For example, if Ford Motor Co. wants to unveil a car with semi-autonomous capabilities, it can do so at its morning news conference, then hold an afternoon session at AutoMobili-D with executives and engineers to give a more in-depth look or demonstration.

“Adding this platform to our show allows us to connect with an entirely new audience,” said Max Muncey, public relations manager for the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which puts on the annual show. “Every week it seems there’s another automaker announcing an acquisition or separate business unit. There’s more happening to the industry than just car reveals. We feel the stage and the platform of NAIAS gives us the perfect opportunity to bring this all together.”

The new expo will kick off Jan. 8 and run through the show’s industry days, Jan. 11-12. Showrunners promise “a very prominent industry thought leader” will speak at the opening ceremony.

NAIAS has faced a growing threat from CES, formerly called the Consumer Electronics Show, which runs the week before the Detroit show’s press days in January.

In its early days, the Las Vegas technology trade show mainly featured video games, televisions, robots and other gadgets. But recently, autos have taken center stage.

At the most recent CES show, General Motors Co. unveiled its Bolt all-electric car. Volkswagen showed its Budd-e electric concept. Ford announced it would triple its autonomous test fleet. Delphi drove journalists in a fully autonomous vehicle near the Las Vegas strip.

Until a few years ago, virtually all of those announcements would have been in Detroit.

“The Detroit auto show is the car show of today, but CES is the car show of tomorrow,” Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with, said. “It needs to evolve. If the traditional auto show is going to exist, it needs to innovate just like every part of the business.”

Alongside automakers and major suppliers, the expo will feature about 50 technology startups that organizers helped find with Techstars Mobility, a Detroit-based incubator launched in late 2014 to support transportation-related startup businesses. Nearly 500 companies from 53 countries spanning six continents applied to the 2016 Techstars program looking to relocate to downtown Detroit.

Besides facing pressure from technology events like CES, there’s been a trend of low-volume, high-dollar automakers shunning formal car shows. Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover, Maserati, Tesla, Mini and Rolls-Royce all opted out of the Detroit show this year. And other carmakers like Ford and GM have started hosting more off-site events to stand apart from the crowd.

“It is a defensive move, and it should be,” Krebs said of the decision to bring AutoMobili-D to Detroit. “It’s the premier auto show in America and it has got to keep changing with its customers. These are the topics we’re going to be discussing for a very long time.”

Muncey said the new expo isn’t a direct response to one rival auto show or event, but rather a response to changing tastes in the industry.

“We’re not trying to copy anybody’s template or program,” Muncey said. “In the feedback we get from our suppliers, they’re looking for another venue to showcase these new plans. We have such a critical mass here. ... It’s all happening here in southeast Michigan.”

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