Auto-tech convergence reshaping industry shows

Michael Wayland

Traditional auto shows are increasingly taking a back seat as automakers premiere new cars and trucks at their own private events and at non-traditional venues, such as the CES technology trade show.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV will have a substantial presence on the Detroit auto show floor next month, but isn’t expected to pull the wraps off any new vehicles. However, Fiat Chrysler is expected to debut an all-electric concept vehicle a week before at the CES show in Las Vegas.

Chinese-backed startup Faraday Future will unveil its first production car in Las Vegas. But Chinese automaker Guangzhou Automobile Group Co. will take a different route and is expected to unveil at least one vehicle at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

When and where to unveil new vehicles has changed with the convergence of Motor City muscle and Silicon Valley technology. CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show, attracts the attention of more automakers. And tech companies will travel to the Motor City in January.

“We’ve witnessed a rising tide of the suppliers and vehicle OEMs, and now big tech companies,” said Steve Koenig, senior director of market research for the Consumer Technology Association, which organizes the CES show. “It has definitely become the go-to event globally for vehicle tech … and it continues to grow.”

CES, which runs Jan. 3-8, will feature 128 auto-related companies situated over 200,000 square feet of floor space. It’s the largest auto presence ever at the show, and includes nine automakers and 11 major auto suppliers.

NAIAS — which runs Jan. 8-22, including public days starting Jan. 14 — will host more than 30 auto brands and a handful of suppliers on 700,000 square feet of space at Cobo Center. About 50 tech startups will show their wares in a 120,000-square-foot space for a new event called AutoMobili-D; it’s the Detroit show’s response to the changing auto-tech landscape and emergence of CES.

“We try to be as cutting-edge as we possibly can,” said NAIAS Chairman Sam Slaughter. “This is our way to leapfrog over what other shows may be doing.”

Google’s self-driving car project — now known as Waymo — chose NAIAS over CES to showcase its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans.

The convergence of the industries and closeness of the shows have led some to question whether or not both can continue. However, officials and industry insiders contend that they serve different purposes.

“I think they can coexist, and I think they kind of need each other,” said Autotrader Executive Publisher Karl Brauer. “They each specialize in different areas.”

CES is not a public event. It’s a trade show for companies to meet, mingle and demonstrate their newest technologies, while hosting media for certain press conferences. It’s one of the reasons the show has thrived, according to Koenig.

“The vehicle-tech presence at CES has now, really over the past few years, risen to a level where it is the must-attend event for vehicle technologies,” he said. “We have really tried to position CES as a high-level business event.”

Whether CES competes with auto shows — particularly NAIAS — “directly or indirectly, that point could be debated,” Koenig said.

Auto shows are essentially grouped into three categories — consumer, industry and media. Despite more than 800,000 people attending NAIAS during public show days, it is known as a media-focused show that garners more coverage than all the other domestic auto shows combined, according to a 2015-16 report for show officials by Prime Researching, an international firm that analyzes media performance.

Automakers more and more are looking to CES to announce new tech news, while keeping a focus on auto shows such as NAIAS, which remain relevant to their core business: selling cars.

“Obviously, Detroit is the biggest show and very important to us. CES is also a big opportunity,” Rick Deneau, a FCA US spokesman, previously told The Detroit News about its decision to hold a press conference next month at CES instead of NAIAS. “I think it will prove more obvious why specifically we are showing the vehicle first at CES once it’s revealed.”

Unveiling a car at CES and bringing it to the Detroit show isn’t unprecedented for a Detroit automaker: General Motors Co. used CES in January to premiere its 2017 Chevrolet Bolt; it followed that up with a Detroit press conference for the all-electric car, along with the 2017 Chevy Cruze hatchback. GM CEO and Chairman Mary Barra attended both shows.

Nissan Motor Co. is expected to follow in GM’s tracks from a year ago. The Japanese automaker’s CEO and Chairman Carlos Ghosn, who also heads Renualt and Mitsubishi Motors, will attend both shows. Ghosn recently said that Nissan will have a “substantial presentation” at CES but declined to provide details.

“I’m pleased that Nissan will be taking the CES stage at this moment of significant change and opportunity for the automotive sector,” Ghosn said. “Nissan has a history of developing breakthrough technologies that have transformed how cars are powered, driven and integrated with wider society.”

Brauer contends it’s even “kind of ironic” that both NAIAS and CES are so close to one another — a literal convergence to symbolically represent both industries.

“The companies that will win this race to the autonomous car will be the car company and the tech company that best come together,” he said.

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