January roads now lead to CES in Las Vegas, not Detroit auto show


Januaries will never be the same.

Four years ago, CEO Mary Barra revealed General Motors’ breakthrough Tesla fighter — the Chevrolet Bolt — at CES in Las Vegas, the week before its hometown show. In Detroit, Chevy held a technical briefing while re-revealing the Bolt.

What could be worse? Well, Ford.

Heading into that same Detroit show, the No. 2 U.S. automaker reportedly had been in negotiations to partner with Google on self-driving cars. But it seems the Silicon Valley company was really looking for more of a contract manufacturer than a development and data partner, so a deal couldn’t be struck.

That’s how things go sometimes — and it was probably the right move for Ford. But with no Google deal to announce, there was poor Mark Fields trying to pass off an app called “FordPass” as some kind of passport to the Future of Transportation. It came off like trying to sell iTunes with a rotary phone.

The one-two punch dealt a mortal blow from which the January version of the North American International Auto Show would never recover.

Since then, even as the U.S. auto industry chalked up great sales and profits, the Detroit show has failed to stir up the excitement that overfilled Cobo — now TCF — Center for a generation of Januaries, whether the weather was unseasonably pleasant (as it often was) or brutally cold with heavy snow that choked the roads.

So the Detroit show has been moved to June. I wish the best for the Detroit Auto Dealers Association that puts it on, though I have a sinking feeling I’ll be more disappointed than amazed.

Since 2016, it’s become trendy to say CES is the premier auto show in the U.S. — or even the world. I’m not so sure about that — no production vehicles are scheduled to be revealed at this year’s show, and as of mid-December, only one major automaker’s CEO had announced plans to attend the Las Vegas event this year.

But more may show up. And the anticipation — the possibility of surprise — that is so rare at most traditional auto shows does give CES extra juice. That’s in addition to all of the non-automotive tech-toy purveyors adding even more lights, screens, beeps and tunes than Sin City already pumps into our sense organs.

At least from the agenda, it looks like the ultimate supplier show. While more automakers — emulating Apple and Tesla, perhaps — are opting for one-off, standalone events where they don’t have to share the media with other companies, suppliers still enjoy having a critical mass of reporters and cameras around so they can compete for a little piece of a bigger, brighter spotlight.

I’ve covered more than 20 Detroit shows, and for many of those years I’ve been in charge of my news organization’s coverage of NAIAS. So I’ve never been able to go to CES the week before. Friends told me to count my blessings.

I’ve heard the horror stories of the acres of buses to ferry people around slowly, even by Las Vegas standards. I know there’s a sprawl that makes the Messe Frankfurt look compact. And about the overcrowded schedules that leave little time to think, sleep or write (well).

But I’m looking forward to it. Getting away from the usual grind — even to dive into an extraordinary grind — is a great opportunity to meet new people, hear new ideas and reconsider the way business gets done.

So bring on the gizmos and the pipe dreams of a glorious future. And we’ll sort out afterward how much of what happens in Vegas doesn’t just stay there.

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