The Auto Show of the Future Is Already Here

The Auto Show of the Future Is Already Here

Despite all he had seen in nearly three decades as executive director of Detroit’s annual auto show, Rod Alberts found himself staring in mild disbelief.

On a nearby video screen, he watched as an empty autonomous car parked itself, used a sensor to recharge its batteries through thin air, then returned to curbside to pick up its “occupants.”

Although controlled from the event’s lower ground floor in Detroit, the vehicle itself was over 7,000 miles away, in Shanghai. Captured in real time by three cameras, the demonstration used an “automated valet” system developed by ZongMu Technology, a Chinese start-up.

Increasingly, alongside their traditional sparkling new models on rotating stands, top car shows are mixing in heavy doses of technology and hands-on experiences like driving simulators and virtual reality demonstrations.

“Technology is here to stay,” Mr. Alberts said, noting the scores of start-ups at the North American International Auto Show last month in Detroit. “The mobility world, and our car shows, have changed a lot.”

Ten years ago, Mr. Alberts estimates, the worldwide car population spanned 50 brands and 350 models. Today, with the disappearance of names like Saab, Scion, Mercury and Pontiac, and automakers like General Motors and Ford still trimming their lineups, he calculates those numbers have shrunk by as much as 20 percent.

All this means fewer cars on Mr. Alberts’ carpets. Moreover, as carmakers increasingly take advantage of social media and shorter build times, model introductions that historically took place in the fall and winter — when many shows are scheduled — now happen year-round.

However, despite recent headlines proclaiming the imminent demise of conventional car shows, those predictions seem premature.

The biggest events still draw large crowds, filled with plenty of potential buyers. Last year, an estimated 11 million people attended the nation’s 55 traditional car shows — excluding classic auto and specialty exhibits — according to Foresight Research, an industry data-tracking firm in Rochester Hills, Mich. Despite record-breaking cold weather, the Detroit show’s attendance reached a reported 774,000, off slightly from the year before but hardly dying.

“It’s true the shows are evolving — but in a positive way,” said Jennifer Colman, president of the Automotive Trade Association Executives. “They’re offering interactive apps, ride-and-drives and other experiences that meet consumers’ needs.”