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The 2022 Detroit Auto Show was a depressing ghost town

The 2022 Detroit Auto Show was a depressing ghost town
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Ford Motor Company exhibit at the 2022 North American International Auto Show.

Ford Motor Company exhibit at the 2022 North American International Auto Show.
photo: Lalita Chemello

The 2022 North American International Auto Show in Detroit opened its doors to media and industry professionals this week, with public days beginning tomorrow. The NAIAS was once the highlight of the US auto show, with huge, over-the-top displays and reveals from domestic and foreign automakers. But the pageantry was already beginning to fade before the pandemic and circulate around the 2022 show – the first Detroit Auto Show since 2019 — The event was almost unrecognizable.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, NAIAS felt like it was slipping in 2019. Ferrari, Lamborghini, Rolls-Royce and Bugatti were nowhere to be found in the convention center – their only presence was at a private show at a nearby casino. Porsche had also left the building. The big, elaborate revelations became more subtle. Vendors and collections that had previously been relegated to the basement now made their appearance in the main exhibition area.

In 2018, organizers proposed a solution: Beginning in 2020, the NAIAS would move from its traditional cold January dates to a more pleasant week in Junearound the time of IndyCar Detroit Grand Prix. The show would have an outdoor component that would expand exhibit opportunities for automakers and vendors, and hopefully attract more people to spend some time in downtown Detroit.

The saddest Cadillac display I've ever seen at the Detroit Auto Show.

The saddest Cadillac display I’ve ever seen at the Detroit Auto Show.
photo: Lalita Chemello

Of course it never worked. In June 2020, the state of Michigan just emerged from the most severe phase of its pandemic shutdown. The 2020 show never happened – the event center was converted for use as a FEMA coronavirus field hospital – and the The 2021 show has also been cancelled about Covid concerns.

So, here we are in 2022, with the show now being pushed back to September. People are on the move, the pandemic restrictions are (mostly) gone. But the exhibition space was in a more depressing state than ever.

The Ford exhibit at the 2022 Detroit Auto Show.

The Ford exhibit at the 2022 Detroit Auto Show.
photo: Lalita Chemello

Stellantis had a huge presence at the show, showing products from Ram, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep – but most of the automaker’s space was used for driving demonstrations. Jeep 4x Climbing over artificial rough terrain and Ram 1500s pulling stuff.

At the other end of the hall was General Motors. Cadillac had a small, sad display in front of unadorned concrete walls. Buick had an equally tiny presence. Chevy had the largest footprint of any GM brand, but even that paled in comparison to pre-pandemic shows.

Ford took up most of the ground floor, with a dedicated display for the new Mustang 2024. But what was most notable was the emptiness — the strips of empty walls, the shocking amount of bare space between cars.

The largest crowd at the 2022 North American International Auto Show -- waiting to get through Secret Service security to enter the convention center on Wednesday while President Biden was in the building.

The Biggest Crowd at the 2022 North American International Auto Show – was waiting to get through Secret Service security to enter the convention center Wednesday while President Biden was in the building.

In 2019 and before, not only was the exhibition space packed with cars and displays, the media days were a nightmare. Journalists had to shoulder shoulder to shoulder through crowds to catch a glimpse of a newly unveiled vehicle.

For 2022, the largest crowd at the show was queuing for the Secret Service security scan while President Joe Biden toured the exhibit floor. The biggest news event of the 2022 show, the Debut of the new seventh generation Ford Mustangtook place after the show closed its doors for the evening, down the street at Hart Plaza.

Honestly, this giant inflatable duck just outside of Huntington Place by Jefferson makes the list of the most talked about things from the Detroit Auto Show.

The empty halls of the 2022 Detroit Auto Show.

The empty halls of the 2022 Detroit Auto Show.
photo: Lalita Chemello

There was a time when this place was full of displays. You could get lost in the fray and carry an exhibition map to help you find your way. I’ve been going to NAIAS every year since I was five. I remember the year Jeep brought in air dancers dangling from ribbons hanging from the rafters of the convention center. I remember when Cadillac first displayed its brand new Northstar engine – and sat in the empty showroom late at night and watched my father, then an engineer at Roush, fix the display engine for another day of showing. In 1999, I stood in what felt like the longest line in the world to get a micro-machine miniature of the Volkswagen New Beetle, which was touring the show that year.

But that wasn’t this year’s Detroit Auto Show.

Cars from the Ken Lingenfelter collection are on display in the main exhibition hall.

Cars from the Ken Lingenfelter collection are on display in the main exhibition hall.
photo: Lalita Chemello

Instead, Ken Lingenfelter had a handful of cars from his vast collection displayed right in the middle of the convention center, in a space that was once contested by the world’s biggest automakers. A huge stretch of bare ground separated his cars from the Stellantis exhibit. On the other side was a replica Ghostbusters ambulance Fred Flintstone’s Emperor.

Yabba-Dabba-Doo!  Excited for the latest green mobility concept at NAIAS.

Yabba-Dabba-Doo! Excited for the latest green mobility concept at NAIAS.
photo: Lalita Chemello

So which automakers have emerged? All Stellantis, ford, Lincoln, GMToyota and Subaru. I saw a single Clear air on a small display next to the tiny booths reserved for mobility technology providers. Lexus had a display out there somewhere. Most of the automakers in attendance unveiled their new vehicles days before the show – if they had anything new to unveil at all.

The smaller booths of automotive suppliers and mobility tech companies.

The smaller booths of automotive suppliers and mobility tech companies.
photo: Lalita Chemello

In the era of the pandemic shutdown, when auto shows were canceled, automakers pivoted — first to online livestreams for new vehicle debuts, then to privately hosted events. Flying a handful of journalists and influencers to an exciting location to see the debut of a new model was probably more cost-effective than securing a footprint at a dozen different auto shows throughout the year – and at a private event, an automaker has to Don’t compete with any other brand on the market to draw attention to the latest model.

Driving home from the 2022 Detroit show, I thought a lot about the future of NAIAS. What was once the most anticipated show of the year has become a drab shadow of itself. Aside from the Mustang (which debuted at a separate Ford event) and President Biden’s visit (which was more of a speed bump for journalists covering the show), there was no excitement or hype. The crowds had basically disappeared by Wednesday afternoon and Thursday’s low attendance showed just how bad things have gotten.

The pandemic has changed so many things in life and the NAIAS organizers cannot be blamed for that. The show’s move from January to June to September has been repeatedly hampered by the unpredictable changes in life under the influence of COVID-19. But walking away from the 2022 Detroit Auto Show leaves me wondering if auto shows have any future at all.

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