Occasionally, we get nostalgic about the grand old Detroit auto shows. Bulls running down the street. Jeeps crashing through windows. Used to be, you could expect an unyielding schedule of theatrical unveilings and tantalizing concepts shimmering under Cobo's klieg lights, the closest thing to sunshine in Detroit this time of year.
There were no "off-sites." Just breathtaking sights. It was — if our lawyers will allow this — the greatest show on Earth.
But the future calls for something else, something more.
Let's remember that it's consumers, not journalists, who drive this industry. Judging by the steady traffic at auto shows, they still want a place where they can study and touch dozens of cars in one place, in the evening or on a weekend, as a family, without sales pressure. And they deserve one.
But for the typical consumer driving a nearly dozen-year-old vehicle, the familiar format of bodies on turntables cannot begin to convey what makes today's cars exceptional or how much they have changed in those dozen years. The changes aren't in the sheet metal or leather, but hidden in the code that runs the umpteen processors and sensors.
While we media types blithely speak of a future of driverless, cloud-enabled, zero-emission vehicles, many consumers have yet to experience even such basics as push-button ignition, rear cameras or adaptive cruise control. As for more advanced technologies such as hands-free driving or electric propulsion, face it: There's only so much you can glean from a car parked in a convention hall.
So we'll add this to the list of the industry's many challenges: Conceive of a successor, or complement, to the modern auto show that's not just about looking and touching, but about feeling, doing and understanding — again, without sales pressure or inconvenient hours. Think less about branding the next IntelligentDriveSenseTechSuite and more about ensuring that drivers can experience the ever-expanding technology options and learn to trust them.
It wouldn't have to be any less magical than shows of old. Indeed, it could be the greatest show on Earth.