Weekly Brief: Auto Shows Not Yet Land of the Dinosaurs

The North American International Auto Show returned after two years of pandemic to its downtown home in Detroit last week, where showgoers were greeted by a giant, yellow, 61-foot-tall duck at the front entrance.

More surprises awaited inside the exhibition hall, where 80 dinosaurs were arranged along a trail of SUVs, trucks, fossil digging, arts and crafts and interactive storytelling called the Dinosaur and Off-Road Vehicle Encounter. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that this is the very sound of an auto show dying an ugly death, the glamour of bygone days of rock legends, lasers and smoke machines lost to a bunch of desperate gimmicks to get people through the door. To which I say … yeah, maybe.

Auto shows are on the rocks. Their whole business model of carmakers paying top dollar to attend them has been exploded by an era when carmakers can host their own private events at airport hangars or race tracks and stream the coverage directly to consumers. Carmakers used to spend at least $1M to host press conferences and twice that for space on the exhibition floor of each auto show. That seems untenable today, as automakers shrink their marketing budgets rather than expand them. Perhaps trying to lure customers with random dinosaurs into your exhibition hall is an unwitting admission that your auto show has become a dinosaur itself.

Then again, maybe not. Auto shows have always used odd, unconventional ways to grab eyeballs. The big yellow duck wasn’t the North American International Auto Show’s idea. Instead, the duck is part of an outdoor Jeep display that pays oversized homage to what Jeep calls “ducking.” If you haven’t heard of it (I’m proud to say I haven’t), ducking is the strange practice among Jeep owners of leaving yellow ducks on the hoods of other Jeeps that they see in public and take a shine to. Maybe this is actually a thing. Maybe it’s a gimmick.

Inside, beyond the dinosaurs, the event also grabbed national headlines thanks to a visit from President Joe Biden. He showed up on Wednesday to announce that the first $900M of federal funding for building out a nationwide electric vehicle charging infrastructure has been approved. The first round of funds will be directed to 35 states, including Michigan, with the goal of creating charging corridors with half a million charging stations across the US. Biden said: “It used to be that to buy an electric car, you had to make all sorts of compromises but not now. Thanks to American ingenuity, American engineers, American autoworkers – it’s all changing.”

In other news last week, Cruise announced plans to expand its commercial robo-taxi service to two new cities – Phoenix, Arizona and Austin, Texas – before the end of the year. Cruise CEO Kyle Vogt said the services will be fully autonomous from the start, with no safety operator behind the wheel and that Cruise will look to scale rapidly. The company already has a partnership with Walmart in Phoenix, so it has mapped and driven the streets there before. Austin will be a new environment entirely.

The move represents an acceleration of schedule by six months and signals that Cruise is feeling bullish on capturing first-to-market advantage, while Waymo continues to plot a more cautious course despite its technological edge. Vogt said that securing the necessary permissions to launch into two new markets was a breeze, requiring only three weeks. “I think along the way we built a lot of credibility and trust,” Vogt said at the Goldman Sachs’s Communacopia and Technology Conference.

This will come as a shocking statement to some, given the fact that Cruise just recalled 80 if its robo-taxis owing to software problems and an accident in San Francisco that caused two injuries. Its vehicles have regularly been causing backups and bottlenecks at intersections. If that’s what it takes to instill “a lot of credibility and trust” among our regulators, we should be worried.

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