RIP for Detroit's auto show
When Bob Lutz turns into Mr. Wizard, you know it's not about the cars any more.
DETROIT (Fortune) -- For 30 minutes, uber-car guy Bob Lutz held forth before an audience of business journalist on the final press day of Detroit's International Auto Show.
In past years, Lutz, vice chairman of General Motors (GM, Fortune 500), would have been rhapsodizing about the new Cadillac CTS coupe or the 600-horsepower Blue Devil Corvette - or just about the fun of driving fast.
Instead, Lutz made like Mr. Wizard. He expounded on such topics as the merits of lithium ion cobalt oxide batteries (not well suited for automobiles) and the lack of enzymes in a proprietary new process to manufacture ethanol (much more efficient). Except for the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid best known for its fuel economy and not the way it slithers around turns, the virtues of a particular car model hardly ever crossed his lips.
You could say that Lutz's science seminar marked the beginning of the post-carbon automotive age. With alternative fuels and climate change now dominating the conversation in Detroit's - and the rest of the world - it doesn't leave much room for the usual blather about the longer this and the wider that. Just calling a car "new and improved" makes little impact in a world of $100-a-barrel oil and melting icebergs.
The changes were visible all over the show. Automakers toned down their elaborate and expensive displays, opting for visibility and simplicity over pizzazz and extravagance. Also gone were the made-for-tv product reveals. No Jeeps drove through the plate glass windows in Cobo Hall; no minivans dropped from the ceiling. Chrysler's misguided cattle drive on Sunday, when it herded dozens of longhorn cattle in front of the show arena to promote its new Dodge Ram pickup truck, should accelerate the end of that particular chapter of unnecessary showmanship.
Auto shows still have a value for the dealers who sponsor them as a way to get customers excited about buying a new car and truck. But as an opportunity for industry executives to connect with automotive journalists, they have become as obsolete as political conventions have to the presidential nominating process.
Thanks to primary elections, the nominees are picked months before the conventions are held. Similarly, auto companies hold background briefings weeks before the actual show, so analysts and journalists can examine concept cars and upcoming new models in depth. Spy photos and industry gossip so thickly clog the Internet all year round that schmoozing at the slow is almost redundant.
No longer do manufacturers feel the necessity of showing up just because everybody else is. Porsche established a precedent by declining to exhibit in Detroit this year because it believed there were more efficient ways for it to reach its customers. Other companies have taken notice. "There was a lot of discussion prompted by Porsche's moving out," BMW executivre Stefan Krause told Christine Tierney of the Detroit News. "We all have to save money and target our investment." Once a company leaves, it is unlikely to return because the floor space that it used to occupy is quickly absorbed by other manufacturers.
A couple of prominent CEOs also skipped the show. Ford's (F, Fortune 500) Alan Mulally introduced some vehicles from the stage but declined to make himself available for interviews. Nissan's (NSANY) Carlos Ghosn, who's attended in past years, also passed up this show. He may have just been protesting the awkward schedule that has the show opening early on Sunday morning every year. Executives from Asia and Europe who attend lose their entire weekend to travel.
On the plus side this year was the presence of Toyota (TM) CEO Katsuaki Watanabe, who appeared for the first time since becoming CEO in 2005. Watanabe hosted a reception, held a long news conference, and promised that he'd come back in 2009 too. By then, Toyota may have finally surpassed GM as the world's largest auto company. What the Detroit auto show will look like is anybody's guess.