The Detroit Auto Show Is an Ominous Snoozefest
On the fall of a storied automative event.
I had high hopes for this year’s Detroit Auto Show. Open to the media last week and running through Sunday, the Big Three automakers’ premier event came hot on the heels of big announcements from GM, Ford, and Stellantis on their plans for bringing electric car chargers to the masses. With a new late summer slot in a renewed downtown Detroit, what better time could there be to showcase the exciting new models that could usher in our electric future?
But I was wrong. This year’s Detroit Auto Show was concerningly underwhelming. The Big Three only revealed four new models, down from the six it had said it planned to show off and about half of what it debuted last year. Three of the four models weren’t even really new. They were just revised versions of existing gas-powered models on sale: the Jeep Gladiator, Cadillac CT5, and the Ford F-150. The only all new model was the GMC Acadia, a gas powered mid-sized crossover.
It was a missed opportunity. Auto shows are important not because they serve journalists but because they serve the public. They’re one-stop shops where ordinary people, no matter how car-inclined, can get information on the entire automotive industry and interact with direct representatives of the automaker, not dealers. Regular citizens can ask questions and try vehicles without pretense.
Yet the Detroit Auto Show was desolate. An industry colleague described its central Huntington Place as an “empty bingo hall.” It was a far cry from, say, 2007 when the hall had nearly 50 new model debuts and concepts.
This isn’t (just) sour grapes. Examine this year’s auto show with a wide-angle lens and it becomes clear the Big Three are stunningly half-hearted about electrification.
Now, to be clear, there was some EV presence at the show — it was just minor. Attendees perusing the Detroit AutoMobili-D area of small vendors and startups could encounter plenty of noble ideas about batteries, charging, and automotive technology. They could also ride in aspirational cars like the Tesla Model S Plaid or GMC Hummer EV. But riding shotgun in a $100,000 EV rocketing to 60 MPH in less than three seconds is like being driven to school in a Ferrari. Cool experience, but how relevant is it to your life? In an ideal world, the Big Three would show off a fleet of reasonably priced EVs — or at least new concepts that suggest the electric future is just around the corner for everyone.
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But, they didn’t. Stellantis had the RAM 1500 REV EV pickup tucked away in a corner of its display. It showed off the Chrysler Airflow EV concept, but that model was canceled a few months ago. Ford had examples of the Mach-E and F-150 Lightning, but aside from a couple of special editions, there were no substantial changes to either model. The Chevrolet Equinox and Blazer EV were there, but they were unveiled a year ago and there was no news about either model. Instead, the two examples on the showroom floor were non-working preproduction models quarantined on top of plexiglass turntables not meant to be looked at too closely by the general public. If you were a consumer in search of a reasonably priced, compelling EV model, it’s clear that Detroit didn’t have much to offer.
That’s a striking contrast to what’s happening overseas. This month, both China’s Chengdu Motor Show and Germany’s IAA in Munich featured model debuts and concepts that previewed a more egalitarian EV future. Both shows had EVs across many price points, not just super expensive luxury cars and big trucks that cost well into the six-figure range. IAA had keynote speakers from big companies like Continental and LG that outlined their roles and promised innovation in the EV future.
Detroit had none of that.
This might be partly explained by auto shows’ increasing irrelevance. Even before the COVID pandemic, auto show attendance had been in decline as individual automakers preferred to atomize, opting for their own big, highly curated press events full of hand-picked journalists and influencers. For example, last year’s Paris Auto Show only had a handful of similarly irrelevant debuts. One of the biggest unveilings — that of Mercedes-Benz’s fully electric EQE SUV — wasn’t even affiliated with the show; it happened at the prestigious Musée Rodin, the night before the event’s official press days.
But here’s the thing: When the traditional automakers skipped Paris, someone else jumped in: Chinese automakers like BYD, Great Wall Motors, Leapmotor, and more. They stunned the Parisians, much to the chagrin of the Western automakers. These automakers came with fully realized EV model lines that felt impressive and undercut their European competitors.
The Detroit Big Three should count their stars that tariffs and an increasingly precarious geopolitical situation make Chinese vehicles unpalatable in the United States. Ordinary people are increasingly becoming EV curious, and they’re hungry for models beyond an oversized pickup truck or a hyper-expensive luxury sedan. The lack of new EV model debuts or even concepts tells the public that Detroit’s Big Three don’t have much to say about electrification for anyone that isn’t wealthy.
The Detroit Auto Show should be the crown jewel of the American auto industry. It should be a place where the Detroit area automotive giants can show off their latest tech, flashiest concepts, and newest models amid an ever-competitive automotive market. It should be where automakers vie for the public’s attention via innovation and technology. Instead, it was a boring show where executives tried to shake the impending threat of a labor strike. Where were our reasonably priced electric cars?
GM, Ford, and Stellantis claim that managing labor costs is imperative to investing in EVs. But given the lack of progress at the Detroit Auto Show, it seems like something else is going on.
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