Why the Detroit Auto Show isn't just for car companies anymore

Image via the North American International Auto Show.
Image via the North American International Auto Show.

Automakers are using the event to show off mobility technologies, and so are the suppliers and partners who are helping them along the way to self-driving cars.

Autonomous cars. Car-sharing. Ride-sharing.

Attendees of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit have been hard-pressed to find a brand that isn’t talking about one or all of these alternative transportation solutions this week.

The strategy differs from previous years, when brands have used the event, commonly known as the Detroit Auto Show, to unveil a car or concept.

For instance, John Krafcik, head of Google's Waymo unit, took the wraps off the fully autonomous Chrysler Pacifica on the show’s first press day. Waymo’s search for partners to develop and install the company's autonomous driving technology into real cars yielded an alliance with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and a pending deal with Honda.

"That really kicked off the theme of the show this year," says Max Muncey, PR manager for the North American International Auto Show.

The topic of mobility has dominated the show’s press conferences this year, notes Donna Fontana, SVP, partner, and GM of FleishmanHillard’s Detroit office, including discussions about how that affects transportation and urban environments, as well as infrastructure, senior citizens, the disabled, and others who need access.

The focus on mobility stems from the rising trend of young consumers who are not rushing to buy cars as early as older generations did, as well as urbanization and the growth of mega cities, says Ford Motor marketing communications manager Marisa Bradley.

"What does that mean when more and more people are coming into a city to live or work?" she asks. "You are seeing gridlock. You can’t actually travel anywhere in a car, so what does that mean for the way we can provide other transportation solutions?"

The auto industry has also reached a "pivotal point" of broadening the conversation beyond traditional cars, trucks, and utility vehicles to a discussion about the future of alternative transportation solutions—referred to in industry-speak as "mobility," adds Bradley.

"As opposed to just talking about miles per gallon or the performance metrics of a vehicle, discussions about connectivity of the vehicle, the consumer features offered in the cockpit, and automated driving features are becoming more mainstream," explains Muncey. He cites features such as park assist, lane keeping, automated cruise control, and other steps towards a fully autonomous vehicle.

Ford is focusing on how alternative transportation solutions can reduce congestion and improve the environment. At this year’s auto show, its announcements included the expansion of its Chariot ride-sharing service to eight cities, and the debut of its next-generation Fusion Hybrid autonomous development vehicle.

"Alternative modes of transportation were the focal point at our stand," says Bradley.

In terms of the strategies used to get its message out, Ford held a traditional press conference at the auto show, as well as a daylong symposium of programming that brought in other partners to tell its story. Five TED speakers discussed how mobility and transportation affect other parts of a person’s life, such as education, health and wellness.

"We knew this conversation was much bigger than just the auto industry and companies that would normally follow the auto show," says Bradley. "We invited the public and brought in over 1,000 consumers, students, and small businesses. We also worked with Vice and the New York Times, which both live-streamed the event."

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn was also at the show, talking about the company’s Intelligent Mobility vision. The plan "anchors critical company decisions around how cars are powered, how cars are driven, and how cars integrate into society, all while staying focused on creating more enjoyable driving experiences," according to a company statement.

Between now and 2020, Nissan plans to roll out technologies and features that will add up to a self-driving car, explains David Reuter, VP of global communications operations at Nissan Motor.

"We talked a lot about the rollout of those products, how it will work, and used the auto show to educate media and the public on these new features that are coming," Reuter says.

That trend has made the event a showcase for nontraditional players, such as the suppliers that develop the technology. They are using the show as a platform to talk about connectivity, autonomous vehicles, how these transitions affect what the vehicle looks like, and the involvement of startups, says Fontana.  

Bosch unveiled its eAxle and Electric Power Steering System at this year’s show. Meanwhile, engineering firm IAV, in collaboration with Hewlett Packard Enterprise, showcased CUPRA, also known as the "Cloud Car," which can communicate directly with the driver and surrounding motorists. General Motors, meanwhile, used the event to show off Maven, a service it recently purchased that allows users to find and book a car through an app.

"This was the first year the show invited startups to generate discussion," she says. "There seems to be a broader base of players than we used to see."

The event’s organizers embraced the mobility discussion by launching the AutoMobili-D initiative. The show brought in more than 120 companies, a mix of automakers, suppliers and startups to answer the question, "How is the transportation industry going to completely shift in the future?"

"We are looking forward to [AutoMobili-D] being the underpinnings of the show of the future for us," says Muncey.

This story first appeared in PR Week.

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