Why CES Scares Auto Writers


So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” ~Hunter S Thompson

Yes, Virginia, CES is the Most Important Auto Show. Want to know why? Because it isn’t a car show at all. I know, I know…. this is confusing stuff. Hang out for a minute though, and all will be explained.

To understand the importance of CES to the modern auto industry, it’s critical to first understand why car shows exist in the first place. For the better part of a century, cars have been a crucial signifier of middle class status, a necessary social utility and the pinnacle of industrial consumerism in the United States, making them an obvious subject of mainstream fascination. The continuous development of automotive performance, efficiency, quality and refinement delivered meaningful improvements in everyday driving, and stoked faith in consumers that automotive progress would continue to change their world for the better. As long as automotive technology continued to evolve in meaningful ways consumers were eager to understand how the latest developments would make their life better, and they flocked to the Motoramas and International Auto Exhibitions to be dazzled by the automotive miracle.

Somewhere in the last twenty years or so, however, the auto industry lost its futurist halo. As performance hit the outer limits of what is enjoyable in the real world and the more prosaic values of quality, reliability, efficiency and ease of use became paramount to buyers, cars stopped developing in ways that seemed futuristic and simply improved. This has been demonstrably good for consumers, simultaneously making new cars almost embarrassingly good and attainable; remember, today’s mass-market C-segment sedan is a miracle of engineering comparable in performance and amenities to luxury-brand cars of not all that long ago. But, paradoxically, this era of unprecedented product quality has also been bad for the auto industry for the simple reason that refined maturity is, well, boring. 

To the extent that cars are a means to mobility, this is not a problem. Steady improvements in auto quality has made cars better than ever at fulfilling the basic mobility needs of consumers. But the relationship between automakers and consumers is not simply needs-based. Thanks to a century of marketing, cars have come to be seen as avatars of freedom, prestige and futurism and it is only against the backdrop of this marketing that modern commodified automobiles seem less than entirely exciting. Having built up a sense of expectation that cars must always be at the limits of technological innovation, automakers have simply run out of headroom in the field of automotive technology to fulfill these carefully-cultivated desires. Marginal improvements in power, safety, performance and comfort simply can’t keep pace with the expectation of change that consumers now seem to expect.

This, in a nutshell, is why automakers must now turn to CES to re-shape consumer expectations and recast automobiles as “the ultimate gadgets.” It’s not that cars don’t fulfill our needs… quite the contrary, in fact. Our needs are so well filled by mature automotive technology, that we must now develop new needs in order to push automotive technology past its plateau of maturity. To some extent, this reflects an inversion of the traditional relationship between automakers and consumers, in which marketing conditions buyers to expect precisely what automakers are ready to give us. This dynamic began with electric cars, which have always been less good at fulfilling consumers’ traditional mobility needs (due to range anxiety etc) but which have become avatars of technological change for its own sake. EVs may have first been introduced as a way to comply with environmental regulations, but once offered they cultivated entirely new automotive desires which the rest of the industry has had to scramble to keep up with. And an entire online community of green car fans has emerged online to celebrate a class of cars that do not offer any tangible improvement in fulfilling our actual mobility needs but which serve the growing need for a sense of innovation in the automotive space.

The rise of this green-car media, which has blossomed for more than ten years now, points out that the real problem in all this change is not for automakers but for the traditional automotive media. Automakers have done a fantastic job, courting and cultivating this new form of automotive enthusiasm based on entirely new values, and now by flocking to CES they are simply taking the next step in encouraging the next wave of automotive enthusiasm. And though some traditional automotive outlets are adapting to the changing times and sending reporters to cover CES, not all are making the transition quite so well. As automakers adapt their messaging and offerings to the tech gadget crowd, the established tech media outlets are stepping up to cover this new chapter in automotive communication. We saw this last year, when Google made its self-driving car announcement an exclusive to the tech media outlet Re/Code, bypassing the entire traditional auto media to deliver the biggest car news of the year to a Silicon Valley outlet. And we’re seeing it at CES this year, where Re/Code, The Verge, AllThingsD, CNET and others have offered some of the best coverage of what has become a crucial stop on the auto industry’s expanded publicity circuit.

The response from auto outlets has been characteristically defensive, full of invective against “Silicon Valley hucksters” and “people who don’t understand the auto industry.” But this reaction proves that auto writers themselves don’t understand where the auto industry is heading. For a century, the industry has genuflected to its captive media and communicated its goals in the language of people who understand and appreciate cars; the fact that this reality is shifting is not the fault of misguided automakers or tech industry hypsters, but of auto writers themselves who have been so fixated on their century-old game that they don’t realize the world has changed around them. If the auto media were less insular and more aware of outside technological and social trends, they would understand that they are stuck in a rut that society as a whole has a dwindling amount of interest in.

Does this mean the auto industry is a month or a year away from fundamental “disruption”? Of course not. Luckily for the benighted auto media the coming transformation of the auto industry will take time to unfold, giving writers time to accept that the auto industry must change in order to live up to the futurism it has always embodied. But if the response from auto writers is to dig in their heels, declare the auto industry’s new direction “vapor” and dismiss efforts to communicate with the mass-market audience that auto outlets have blithely ignored for decades, they will never adapt to the new automotive world. It’s one thing to be skeptical of hyped-up overpromising surrounding the changing role of the car, but it’s quite another to pretend that the car industry can’t or shouldn’t change. The change is already upon us, and anyone who isn’t ideologically invested in the dying automotive paradigm can see it unfolding all around them. Embracing this change and adapting to it is the sign that a writer or analyst “gets the car industry.” Stubbornly resisting and trying to hold on to the industry’s past simply proves that a writer’s allegiance to the traditional automotive paradigm is stronger than his or her desire to truly understand where the industry is and help make it relevant to as many people as possible.