Every year since 1957, automakers from around the world have come to Detroit in January to show off their latest and greatest. This year, however, many of them are stopping in Las Vegas first—and scooping their own show.
Sin City is the site of the annual Consumer Electronics Show, also held in January, which used to be dominated by computers, smartphones, TVs and other digital doo-dads. But automakers have crashed the party, becoming a top draw for many attendees. That partly reflects all the new gizmology showing up in vehicles, from dashboard apps to self-driving sensors to smartphone-enabled car controls. But it’s also an effort by automotive executives to shed their industry’s industrial-era image and rebrand the car business as a trendy, tech-enabled growth sector.
Here are a few of the announcements that would normally take place at next week’s Detroit auto show (officially known as the North American International Auto Show), but are instead rolling out at this week’s “Super Bowl of tech” in Las Vegas:
* General Motors (GM) is unveiling the Chevrolet Bolt, an all-electric compact car that’s supposed to retail for less than $30,000. (Its predecessor, the Chevy Volt, debuted at the Detroit auto show in 2007.)
* GM CEO Mary Barra introduced the Bolt in a keynote speech at CES. In Detroit, her public remarks will be limited to part of a Chevrolet presentation with other GM execs.
* In another CES keynote, Ford (F) CEO Mark Fields laid out a new vision for Ford as a “mobility” company that plans to expand beyond the mere production of automobiles into transportation services such as mass transit, ride sharing and rentals.
* Toyota has begun to fund and staff nearly 30 projects on robotics and artificial intelligence.
* A Chinese-backed startup called Faraday Future took the wraps off a “concept car” (sort of a science project that may or may not get built) that looks like the Batmobile, has race-car specs and will powered by electricity from a regular outlet.
* Many other automakers and suppliers at CES are touting plans for self-driving vehicles, electric wondercars and connected ecosystems that will be a delirious marriage of home and car.
Automakers have been coming to CES since 2007, so they’re not a new phenomenon at the tech show. But they're taking up 25% more space at this year's show than they did last year. And there’s good reason for wanting to sex up the industry’s image: Automaker stocks have become unloved dullards lagging far behind tech darlings such as Amazon (AMZN), Netflix (NFLX) and Facebook (FB). “Wall Street thinks this is the best the business will get," Mark Fields of Ford told Yahoo Finance recently. "They have no faith the business can grow." But if investors start to view cars as connected gizmos brimming with technological promise, that view might change and automaker stocks might take off.
The question, however, is whether there will be any excitement left for Detroit. Sure, there will be introductions of new models such as the Chrysler Town & Country minivan, the Ford Fusion, the Mercedes E Class and the revived Lincoln Continental. But does that get you excited? As much as a new Batmobile, mirrorless BMWs or magical cars that come when you wave your hand?
It might just be that the consumer show in Las Vegas is where car companies and their aficionados go to strut, preen and party, while the Detroit show has become a duty call where the industry’s unglamorous business takes place. Vegas gets all the fun.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.