The Tech Industry, Including Tesla, Has Shown Us How to Rethink Car Shows

For one thing, let's kill the yearly circuit outright.

End Car Shows
Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg/Getty Images

There was a time, not too long ago, when people would press their faces against auto dealership windows, waiting for the wraps to come off the new year's model. (Sometimes it was actually on the New Year.) Cars were the high-tech toys of this time—the shiny, yet attainable, piece of the future that could change your life with the right outlook and imagination.

It's hard not to see the parallel between then and now, where annual Apple events have evolved from the exclusive purview of geeks and insiders into cultural happenings—flashy, anticipated, news cycle-dominating affairs—that add billions of dollars to the company's bottom line. This shift hasn't been overlooked by automakers' marketing and communication departments, and the same changes that have affected the consumer electronics world are quickly changing how automakers are debuting their wares.

Tesla's Model 3 event, in March, was a turning point. It's when every auto company in existence sucked through their collective teeth at the impact of what Musk and Co. pulled off—a similarly high-profile, inescapable, buzzed-about Event. And then the preorders started rolling in.

"It was a phenomenon," one marketeer from a domestic automaker told me soon after the event. "We were kind of expecting it to be a big thing, but we didn't think the orders would go that high, that quickly."

That surprise continued within Tesla. Executives and employees looked on in amazement as the first day's preorders came in. Images of hundreds of people lined outside Tesla stores were playing on every morning show, each person ready to hand over a grand for a vehicle that the vast majority had never even seen in person.

Cases can be made about what the real drivers were—and there are plenty of think-pieces attempting to explain it all—but the combination of a prestige, tech-forward brand with a brilliant, world-renowned CEO and his affable, barely prepared charm netted for Tesla what few automakers thought possible (or at least thought possible at this scale): early adopter-style near-hysteria over a new car, without any traditional marketing behind it whatsoever.

Success, in this case, was almost entirely about control. Tesla set their own timeline, got the concept to the level necessary for their own event, and were free from the constraints of a set schedule or competing for press attention. Like his Silicon Valley counterparts, Musk does things on his own timeline, not just because he can, but because when he does, he delivers. And then he offers test rides.

This trend hasn't been lost on other automakers, particularly Ford, which has embraced any new medium that gives the company a direct line to consumers. Much of this is outside the traditional auto show space, targeted directly at social media (remember the "Fiesta Movement"?) and "influencers." Forward with Ford, it's annual social-driven conference, might have traditional journalists rolling their eyes at the sea of mommy bloggers and Instagram-famous personalities, but that's their demographic, and it's a direct and largely inexpensive path to its target audience.

Ford has been experimenting with these different formats for nearly a decade, but it's turning up the wick on its own enthusiast-focused events. The 2013 Mustang event and last year's Focus RS launch were on Ford's terms, on Ford's stage, and targeted directly at potential buyers. The result was more media attention than each vehicle would have received at a traditional auto show.

When that becomes the norm, the days of the traditional auto show as we know it are numbered.

In their current form, auto shows still do a few things well. First, deals get done. With the appropriate cadre of C-suiters from every automaker in attendance, conversations on the floor turn into dinner and drinks and, eventually, sweet corporate intercourse. And with everyone's private jets parked on the same runway, two leaders can meet without causing a ruckus at the golf club.

Secondly, it's a convenient way to get everyone—press, product, execs, engineers—in one place at one time. But it's also ridiculously expensive to attend any show of any importance; the bare minimum to display at most international shows starts around a million, with the German luxury brands routinely spending upwards of $30 million, all in an attempt to cut through the din from dozens of other automakers doing the exact same thing.

The result is a new vehicle lands on the show floor, gets a half-day of press (maybe), followed by some driving impressions—all months before the car finally lands at dealers. From a new-vehicle announcement to the point where you, the buyer, can actually get in the car might take a year or more, at which point any trace of residual hype has subsided.

So with that in mind, here's a modest, two-part proposal for auto shows going forward. They won't die, but most of them will spend some time at a farm up north (looking at you Chicago). And we'll all be better off for it.

ONE SHOW TO RULE THEM ALL

The Geneva Auto Show is the best auto show. So let's take it on the road. Or rather, the concept. Instead of a handful of big shows at cities around the world, let's have one annual bash, with a rotating host city that, like Geneva, is basically neutral territory, free from home-field advantage.

Automakers can attend as they please based on whether they have anything worthwhile to show, perhaps with a rotating featured marque and no constraints on budget, location, or architecture. Think of it like the World's Fair, but with wheels and engines and rubber.

Money would roll into the area, with diehard gearheads making the annual pilgrimage to see all the new things, while people at home can float from booth to booth in VR, stopping to watch a press conference, free from jargon and buzzwords, and closer to the Jobsian sense of just sitting in someone's garage when they're talking about a new and meticulously engineered go-fast part.

And just so my colleagues on the press and automaker sides don't feel left out, we'll tack on a few industry days where the hobnobbing and deal-making can happen. Press conferences can evolve from 30-minute cringefests about dynamism into either formal or informal discussions with executives, engineers, designers, and reporters. News might actually happen.

Make it a months-long event, and displays can be updated and improved, showing how the vehicle is progressing in design and production. And I suspect a few sultans and princes wouldn't be averse to renting out the show floor as their personal showroom for an afternoon.

THE WATERFALL EFFECT

Now automakers, free from dozens of other arbitrary and mandatory auto show appearances, are able to set their own timelines based on when things are actually ready.

Apple announces a new iPhone, and people can pre-order it two days later and pick it up the following week. That might be a tougher job for automakers, but cutting significant time off the current, ridiculous wait can do nothing but stoke sales and increase awareness. Imagine having a car debut on a Tuesday and have the first reviews come in that weekend, just as the models are landing on dealer lots.

And by putting product development and market timing ahead of the news cycle and fixed dates, it should net a better product—and a better presentation, where automakers can use private events, maybe simultaneously held on other continents, to show their latest creation to the world.

The normal cadre of auto show attendees will be flown in, and for those that don't attend, the technology to make it possible is available at Best Buy right now.

Let's say you own an Audi. An RS model, which is a indicator to their data analytics and marketing teams that you're an enthusiast. That means there's a good chance you'd be interested in watching the next R8 being unveiled, and maybe the reveal of the successor to the LeMans-winning R18. Oh, you're a new RSAudi owner? Even better. Every RS owner receives a branded version of whatever almost-new-but-already-commoditized VR headset is available, plus complimentary access to all news events for one year. After that it's paid for, but if you're an active, valuable participant, those fees are waived. Continue on that path and you might be able to preorder the next RS4 (with a reasonable deposit that should accurately gauge demand); get your pre-order in, and Audi throws in a free, three-day high-performance driving school experience with the car. Oh, nice, you're good on track now. Let's fly you to Bahrain for the Audi R8 launch and you can do hot laps with André Lotterer and Lucas di Grassi.

Take that to it's logical conclusion and, well, some of us might be out of a job.

Thankfully, we've still got a few good years in us, if for no other reason than, like every other established industry, things tend to move in tedium. But the world is moving quicker, with some companies adapting, some decaying, and some unable to even get off the ground. There's a variety of better platforms for everyone, it's just a matter of taking the risk of walking down a clearly paved path.