If there is any one lesson that we should all take away from 2016, it’s the confirmation that perception does not necessarily equal reality. What people perceive to be the truth is often the most important part of their decision-making, a concept now shown in the auto industry’s seemingly increasing participation in the International CES and apparently declining interest in Detroit’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS).
There has been a lot of consternation in Michigan recently about the impact that CES has had on the Detroit show over the past decade. The two events tend to run back-to-back over the first 2 weeks of January. I was on hand in 2008 when then-General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner was the first major auto executive to keynote at CES after demonstrating the autonomous Chevrolet Tahoe, which won the DARPA urban challenge the prior year. While more automakers and suppliers than ever took part in CES this year, GM actually took a pass for the first time since Wagoner’s speech.
While the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, which organizes the NAIAS, is concerned that manufacturers are increasingly favoring CES, the issues of the auto show are largely unrelated to what’s happening in Vegas. Auto shows are consumer events designed to showcase all of the latest products available for sale, and media previews show what is arriving in the coming months.
With rare exceptions (like 2016, when Chevrolet unveiled the production version of the Bolt EV), new production vehicles are almost never shown at CES. The electronics show is a business-to-business event that isn’t open to the public; instead, the industry flocks to Las Vegas to talk up technology.
NAIAS Is About Reality; CES Is About Perception
For many years, the financial market’s perception of the auto industry has been that of old-school manufacturers of commodity widgets. The view of Silicon Valley and technology companies is that of innovators on the bleeding edge that are poised for explosive growth. Thus, you have investors pouring billions of dollars into startups every year; most of those companies getting all of that investment fail without ever producing anything noteworthy while burning through cash.
Meanwhile, the modern car is one of the most complicated and technologically sophisticated devices ever created and is produced by the latest cutting-edge processes. The industry that produces them employs tens of millions of people globally directly and indirectly, generating trillions of dollars in revenue and tens of billions in profit. Yet the industry gets little respect and low market values.
The presence of the auto industry at CES is designed to reach a group of media that cover companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook alongside countless startups, the same media that investors follow. The goal is to change the perception of the auto business from one that looks like it came from the dawn of the industrial revolution to one that innovates on a daily basis.
That’s not a message you can get across by showing off the refreshed Ford F-150, even though it may be packed with far more technology than anything from Silicon Valley. That’s a message you communicate by demonstrating automated cars in Las Vegas traffic jams; partnership announcements with chip designers like Nvidia won’t reach its intended audience in auto shows in Detroit, Frankfurt, or Geneva. These shows have issues to address, but the fault doesn’t lie in Las Vegas. It’s all about perception.