Editorial: CES sells tech, but it doesn’t sell actual cars

This month’s CES seemed to set a high-water mark for auto events since the start of the pandemic, with four important or interesting concept car reveals and keynotes from the likes of Stellantis’ Carlos Tavares and BMW’s Oliver Zipse. What it doesn’t do is move the metal.

CES has emerged in recent years as the most significant global auto show: It draws the most media, an array of CEOs, and significant announcements about strategy and product intent that is sadly lacking from most of the once-great shows in the U.S. and overseas.

That’s not to be ignored, but neither is the importance of auto shows of the more humble tradition: Putting the butts of potential consumers into the seats of vehicles available for sale at a neighborhood dealership.

The reality is that throughout most of America, auto shows are run by dealers. So they put the focus on consumers and their needs. Dealer-run shows also typically exclude brands that don’t have franchisees, such as Tesla, Rivian and Lucid.

It’s ironic that CES started as the Consumer Electronics Show. While it’s fashionable to refer to autos as “smartphones on wheels” or as the ultimate consumer electronics platforms, the reality is that CES is about the future, not the consumers of today.

The lineup of concept vehicles, led by the Ram 1500 EV Revolution Concept and Peugeot Inception from Stellantis, BMW’s i Vision Dee concept on the all-important Neue Klasse platform and Sony Honda Mobility’s Afeela concept all point toward exciting ideas about what the industry may look like in the future. That’s a fundamental role for an auto show.

But so is the mission of showing would-be shoppers — many of whom will be in the market in the next 12 months — what is available.

Especially at a time when loyalty has been eroded by the lack of supply, meeting consumers on neutral ground is a good way to initiate contact positively. Now that inventory is returning to dealership lots, brands need to return to the local shows to make good impressions on the millions of people who have been putting off a new-vehicle purchase.

We believe that local shows can and should be a venue for educating consumers about electrification, automated driving and other seismic shifts in how Americans get around. But what they have proved to be is an effective funnel for steering shoppers to exciting brands and vehicles.