Opinion: Detroit Auto Show Waste of Taxpayer Money

Jo Borras
by Jo Borras
opinion detroit auto show waste of taxpayer money

The Detroit Auto Dealers’ Association recently got some good news. Michigan lawmakers have decided to give them a $9 million grant to put on a Detroit Auto Show — the first since 2019 — and effectively “reopen” one of the world’s biggest auto shows. And, while it’s good for the dealers, I have to admit that the news has left me angry with rage.

But why? I’m a car person, so I should be happy, right? After all, Detroit is a major show, packed with cool concept cars and big, international reveals. That stuff’s exciting, who wouldn’t want more of that!? But, sitting here and facing down the start of 2022, I can’t get past the feeling that the traditional auto show is dead — and should stay dead.


The last Detroit Auto Show (Ed. note – there was MotorBella in suburban Detroit this summer – TTAC was there) was held nearly three years ago, in January of 2019 — and to say that the world is in a different place three years on is a bit of an understatement. I’m not just talking about the pandemic, either, which continues to rage on with new variants infecting more and more people daily. I’m not even talking about the shift from internal combustion to battery power that has occurred since (though we’ll explore that here, shortly). What I’m really thinking about is the massive, global push to move businesses online and outdoors on a scale that was unimaginable in the early days of 2019 — and traditional auto shows, being both in-person and indoors, seem like a relic of the past.

Think about it. Even if you’re vaxxed, waxed, and ready to party yourself, the thought of climbing into a car behind little Billy and the snotty little hands he’s been rubbing all over the steering wheel probably doesn’t seem as appealing as it once did, does it? Heck, I wasn’t too crazy about that kind of thing before I realized that kind of thing could kill me – now? No, thanks.

Even assuming there’s zero risk, why would I brave the crowds just to sit in a static car? Especially in 2022, when so much the “experience” of a new car is wrapped up in its software? How do you interact with the dash? The nav? How do the speakers sound with your playlist? How does the electric steering feel? How much of that could you experience at the last auto show you went to?

Then there’s the issue of Detroit, itself. Sure, it has a great history, but even GM seems ready to bail. Help me understand, then, why the ever-dwindling population of Detroit — less than 675,000 people in 2019, and shrinking — should be happy to watch nine million of its tax dollars get funneled to car dealers to help them put on a show that was already dying before the pandemic.

For those of you who haven’t seen Detroit’s scorecard for a few years, Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Mini, Mitsubishi, Porsche, and Volvo had already pulled out of the Detroit Auto Show by the time 2019 rolled around, prompting show management to rethink the event’s traditional January date and toy with the idea of a June 2020 event.

“This is the last Detroit Auto Show that’s taking place in the winter,” Julie Blackley, communications manager at automotive data firm iSeeCars, told CNBC. “The only European brand with a booth is Volkswagen, so there isn’t as much hype around this show as in previous years.”

Indeed, there seemed to be some genuine optimism surrounding the planned move from everyone.

“June will allow us to better showcase the automotive leadership, development and heritage our great city and region holds,” offered Doug North, President of the Detroit Auto Dealers’ Association (DADA).

You already know how that turned out.


There are lots of reasons I find myself baffled by the city’s decision to give DADA what amounts to something like $25-30 per Detroit taxpayer to hold an auto show in 2022. First, as an “oldest child” I am obsessed with the concept of “fairness”, so if you’re going to take $20 out of my pocket against my will to put on a puppet show you’d better not be expecting me to pay another $20 to sit through said puppet show. That’s one.

“Two” is the basic fact that traditional auto shows don’t really serve their stated purpose anymore. Even when the manufacturers still manage to pull the covers off a vehicle that’s a genuine surprise, a consumer can probably find out everything they want to know about it in less time than it takes to walk across Cobo Hall Huntington Place.

Even without COVID, don’t the people of Detroit deserve to see that $9 million go to … I dunno, lead-free drinking water? Or do you think the taxpayers of Detroit, who are effectively being forced to help local car dealers advertise to them, are cool with it?

I can’t imagine.

Still, I should point out here that I might, just possibly, be a teeny-bit jealous of DADA and their big-money grant, because I kiiind of have my own “auto show” thing happening. It’s called the Electrify Expo, and this past summer some 50,000 people came to our outdoor “emobility festival” to check out new plug-in cars from brands like – well, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Mini, Porsche, and Volvo, to pick just from the brands that decided to skip Detroit. In addition to being outdoors, the shows traded the echoing scatter of ambient show noise with DJs and live music and skipped the overpriced hot dogs and pretzels in favor of local food trucks, but the biggest difference was that almost every brand that showed up brought cars with them — cars you could actually drive at the show.

I have my own ideas about why that show works in 2021 (and, hopefully, beyond) while traditional auto shows don’t. I think it has something to do with a focus on mobility, vs. cars — but, regardless, the team behind Electrify put on three different outdoor events, in three different markets, without forcing a $9 million tax bill onto the citizens of Detroit.

You’re the Best and Brightest, however, and I know that I can count on you to apply the appropriate amount of salt to my “truths” here and see things logically. As such, I ask you: are the people of Michigan getting a good deal for their tax money here, or are the Detroit car dealers taking them for yet another ride?

[Image: NAIAS]

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  • Arthur Dailey Arthur Dailey on Dec 22, 2021

    I used to help organize the largest trade show of its kind in Canada. We largely featured industrial equipment such as forklifts/towmotors/industrial lifting devices, conveyors, racking, etc. 'Test driving' one of these under realistic conditions is more important than test driving a car. And it is also more difficult logistically, as few manufacturers will bring one of these vehicles to your facility to let you try it out. This trade show 'expired' around the same time as the 'Great Recession' took hold. Companies cut travel budgets. Our sponsorships diminished. And we realized just how much we depended on government 'largesse'. In my personal opinion, car shows are largely irrelevant. Primarily a smooze fest for 'auto journalists'. And governments should stop spending money on 'corporate welfare'.

  • El scotto El scotto on Dec 22, 2021

    We get the Motor Trend car show in D.C. It's usually their last show on the schedule so the booth people usually know its the end and are pretty loose. It allows people to look at cars they can never afford. It even allows children of all ages to get their picture taken in a new Corvette. I usually go to look at one or two vehicles. Most SUVs and trucks? Hard pass, Detroit has been doing body on frame since the Model T came out. I realize, and am usually behind, those who take the whole family and spend all day at the auto show. It's still a chance to sit in the car I'm thinking about buying and see how it fits. Why take the train downtown, pay 8 buck for a soda, and stop somewhere on the way home to eat? Foursquare Larry and Cokey, his sales manager are desperately hoping one of the show reps got my info and I'll be heading their way. Not. No listening to ole Foursquare, no getting a phone call every day for the next 45 days.

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