DETROIT -- New cars and trucks aren't the only things that the thousands of journalists converging on Detroit for the big auto show will be looking for.
Many of us in the media spend a great deal of the show doing exciting jobs such as trailing executives and politicians around the show floor or waiting in hallways tucked behind the stands for interviews that were supposed to start a half hour ago.
Sometimes the cars being unveiled just get in the way, like when reporters swarmed around Ford CEO Alan Mulally with such aggression a few years ago that I found myself trapped on top of the hood of a Taurus while trying to hear him.
Besides a seemingly endless parade of theatrical press conferences and free food, the show's media days are also about getting answers to questions we might not have many opportunities to ask throughout the year.
Mulally finally put to rest one of the big questions lingering over this year's show by saying he would not leave Dearborn to become the CEO of Microsoft. His comments, in an interview with the Associated Press this week, should help Ford keep the media's attention on the vehicles it's showing rather than the uncertainty that Mulally allowed to swirl around his future plans for months.
(Ford was getting irritated at reporters who kept asking about Mulally's candidacy at Microsoft, yet Mulally refused to offer a definitive denial until now.)
Here are some of the other pressing questions that are hanging in the air as the auto show gets under way:
What will Mary Barra say? This will be the first chance we have to hear from Mary Barra since she was chosen to succeed Dan Akerson as CEO of General Motors. Her presentations the last two years -- unveiling the Buick Encore in 2012 and a brief discussion of global Chevrolet sales in 2013 -- were rather forgettable, but her every word will likely be overanalyzed now in search of clues about the direction she'll take the company. And no, this year's GM stand won't be decorated in pink.
Where's Krafcik? Since being suddenly replaced as CEO of Hyundai Motor America last month, auto writers have been placing bets on where John Krafcik will emerge next. A Krafcik sighting at the show would be notable and quickly prompt speculation about his ties to whoever's stand he is spotted checking out (especially Ford, where he used to work and which will need a new CEO about a year from now, when Mulally retires). His absence from the Hyundai press conference will definitely be felt, as will the fact that he won't be serving beers to reporters during Hyundai's popular media party at a local barbecue restaurant.
How much will Detroit's bankruptcy figure into coverage of the show? It's no secret that Detroit is in the midst of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Show organizers have had to reassure automakers from Asia and Europe that Detroit still has a police force and isn't "paralyzed or in some lawless limbo," as the Detroit Free Press put it. No doubt some of the visiting reporters -- particularly the international press -- will spend at least part of their time here telling their audiences about Detroit's enormous financial mess. Because no one has ever taken pictures of our abandoned buildings before.
What will out-of-town visitors complain about this year? The weather this past week included about a foot of snow and sub-zero temperatures, but by the time everyone arrives in Detroit this weekend, forecasts are calling for highs around 40 degrees. Cobo Center, which hosts the show and was in laughably bad shape for years, has undergone a $279 million renovation. Still, whining about having to spend the middle of January in Detroit is an auto show tradition.
Who can make the most unrealistic sales projections? By definition, it's impossible for every automaker to gain market share at the same time. But that doesn't stop most executives from making bold predictions year after year of great things ahead for their brands. After four years of solid growth for the U.S. auto industry, the temptation to assert that sales will keep going up is as strong as it's been in a long time.
Where's the free food? Public relations pros know that reporters can't ask as many pesky questions when our mouths are full.