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  • Drew Dowdell
    Drew Dowdell

    Butterflies in Detroit

    In Chaos Theory, the butterfly effect is the idea that a tiny change can result in massive changes later. The simple act of a butterfly flapping its wings could set into motion a series of events that change the weather.

    In the summer of 2018, the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, the organization responsible for putting together the Detroit Auto Show, more formally known as the North American International Auto Show or NAIAS, announced that beginning in 2020, the show would move in the calendar from its traditional time in January to a summer month to allow for exhibits and demonstrations outside of what was then Cobo Hall. Little did the show organizers know, but they may have changed the course of history for millions of people.

    The final January show in Detroit was in 2019. It was also the last time I attended after ten straight years of reporting directly from the show. I was looking forward to the summer shows in Detroit. The weather for the January shows has always been unpredictable. There have been years when it has been pleasantly mild and years where I’m driving through unplowed snow six inches deep and then having to schlep to the Cobo Center in dress shoes.  Even with the poor weather, the Detroit Auto Show was always an exciting time to see the newest products and catch up with industry friends.

    There was no Detroit show in 2020, nor was there a New York show, Chicago show, or Los Angeles show, for reasons we all understand in 2023. In the years following, the already struggling shows were cut down significantly, if they even ran at all.

    Yesterday, I received my media credential for the 2023 North American International Auto Show, taking place in Detroit, starting September 13th. While I’ve registered for the credentials to various shows since 2021, this show in September will be the first I plan to attend since 2019. Thinking back, I realized how our recent history with Covid may have been very likely changed by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association’s desire to move the show outdoors. It is highly likely that this simple change in the schedule saved millions of lives.

    I can remember hearing about this strange new virus in China in December 2019. I had recently left a position that I had held for 14 years and, armed with a very generous severance package, had decided to take a few months off to recuperate from burnout.  We already knew that the Detroit auto show was not going to happen until the summer, so I took all of January off with the intent to start looking for work in February.  History being what it was, I wouldn’t work full-time again until May 2020.

    But consider the significance of NAIAS’s move to the summer; Wuhan is China’s 9th largest city, having a population of over 11 million. It is one of China’s most important industrial and research centers and, as such, is home to a large number of automobile part suppliers. Those automobile parts suppliers send reps to all the major auto shows globally.

    December 31st, 2019

    On New Year’s Eve 2019, Covid-19 was officially identified. Though it is now known that the earliest known infection was a person who fell ill on December 1st, 2019, there is also a possible earlier case on November 17th. I can tell you from experience that those of us in the U.S. who attend the Detroit auto show have our travel booked at least a month in advance, so it is likely that individuals who would be traveling internationally would have booked even earlier.  And remember, before Covid, we did not have the mentality of “if you’re sick, stay home”.  For an event as large and as important as the Detroit Auto Show, you just sucked it up and went. I am guilty of this myself. Before Covid-19, I would still attend the show even if I was feeling a little under the weather.

    January 15th, 2020

    Sixteen days after being officially identified, the seven-day rolling average for Covid-19 related deaths was nearly 8,000, mostly in China. January 15th is also traditionally the first or second day of the Detroit Auto Show, and Wuhan was still nine days away from lockdown. California, the first state in the US to lock down, was still two months away.

    A series of unfortunate events… that didn’t happen

    From here, it is not hard for anyone who has attended Media Days at any auto show to imagine the rest of the scenario.  Auto shows are crowded affairs. Journalists and industry spies juggling to get access to the latest product or talk to manufacturers’ representatives. Shaking hands, talking in close quarters, and a distinct lack of respect for personal space is basically required. Nearly no one wears a mask.

    With several hundred to over a thousand visitors coming into Detroit from Wuhan, the Detroit Auto Show would have been not A super spreader event, but THE super spreader event.  This massive gathering of thousands of people in close quarters from all over the globe would have accelerated the pandemic on an unimaginable scale. The virus would have been taken back to cities across the US, Europe, and Asia in large numbers a full two months earlier and caused the pandemic to be far worse and far more rapid than what we went through.

    Returning to Normalcy

    Prior to Covid, working at the Detroit Auto Show could be a 14+ hour day. One year, I remember a 5 a.m. wake-up call to make a 6 a.m. Porsche press conference and then a series of events that lasted well into the evening.  Those days are gone now, and the Detroit Show is a shell of its former self. This year, we expect five or fewer reveals, and even those might be simple facelifts or trim packages.

    But one of the reasons that's happened is because attendance and coverage has dropped so significantly. Manufacturers don’t see the value in a show with a low attendance rate.  I know it’s not going to be like the old days, but it will never come back if we continue to stay away. With that in mind, though the news from the show will still be thin this year, I will be covering the show in person once again, this time with a mask and some butterflies.

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    Outstanding write up Drew. Look forward to your reporting from the show.

    Thank you for taking the risk that many will not take and stay safe.

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    It takes two to tango in the sense that automakers should also put effort in making autoshows work again.  Maybe not in the same way that GM's Motorama once was and autoshows took that formula for the next 50/60 or so years.  

    The pandemic accelerated the direction of car reveals, as how you stated in your timeline, in that internet reveals became that biiiiig event.     The reveal of the Corvette C8 countdown comes to mind.   And if my memory serves me right, Dodge revealed the Hellcats streaming it on the webs and it wasnt the traditional autoshow reveal.

    Another nail in that autoshow coffin,  was how Acura was strongly awaiting for its NSX reveal and Ford comes along and literally blowing Acura and everybody away with their GT reveal negating any attention to Acura and the NSX.   Sure it was great for Ford, but because there was another media way to showcase a surprise or long awaited reveal, automakers now had a very safe a nd legit way to monopolize ALL the attention:  Live streamed internet reveals.  

    I agree, journalists and fans MUST attend big car shows like Detroit, LA, Geneva etc. in order for them to continue, but the Genie has been let out of the internet streaming bottle.  

    I am looking forward to your findings and journalism surrounding the show, I have to admit.   

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