An old proverb states that necessity is the mother of invention. For the Canadian International AutoShow (CIAS) in Toronto, it means a whole new track.
Ever since government restrictions on gatherings during COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the 2021 CIAS — and then the 2022 event — we wondered if it was the beginning of the end for auto shows in Canada.
In the nearly three years since the last CIAS in February 2020, automakers have been challenged to find other ways to get their products in front of buyers.
Some were already backing out of auto shows — the 2023 CIAS is at less than half strength for brand count — instead leaning on social media campaigns and so-called experiential events that put potential buyers behind the wheel in a controlled environment.
This is logical if you subscribe to the belief that vehicles need to be driven to be appreciated and understood. Better to ride a horse than merely pet one, right?
Am I saying that auto shows are essentially just petting zoos? Well, mostly.
And then in November, the big shoe dropped when Ford, to save money, announced it would not participate in Canadian shows.
In the Feb. 10 Automotive News Canada Podcast, CIAS boss Jason Campbell said he was “very disappointed” with the decision, but the resulting pivot just might be the stroke of genius that gives auto shows in this country renewed purpose.
'A BLESSING IN DISGUISE'
Why? How? The funny thing about electric vehicles is that, since there are no tailpipe emissions, they can be driven indoors. When Ford dropped CIAS, that space magically became — ta-da — a 70,000 square-foot (6,500-square-metre) EV test track with 19 vehicles to drive.
“It was almost a blessing in disguise in a way because it has generated so much interest.”
Such a test track was unimaginable in past years because there wasn’t enough spare floor space (not a problem this year), EVs were more of a novelty, and driving internal-combustion vehicles for hours on end indoors is, well, undesirable. What better way to show off how clean running EVs are than by driving them indoors.
Ironically then, CIAS 2023 did precisely what some automakers left the show to do on their own: delivering an experiential event.
More than 15,000 show attendees — 6,000 of them behind the wheel — took an EV for a two-lap spin around the half-kilometre track, with 83 per cent of them driving an EV for the first time, CIAS said this week.
“I think we’re going to see more and more of this,” Campbell said.
It might premature to think those brands will be back in the future — which he suggested in the podcast — but the new direction can’t be overlooked. It’s a perfect opportunity to close the information chasm that exists between auto brands trying to sell new technology and a general population that has not been brought along for the EV ride. At all.
As the federal government pushes its zero-emissions vehicle sales mandate, CIAS becomes more valuable as do other auto shows in Canada, whether in Ottawa, Edmonton or Vancouver. All three were canceled this year.
We would expect larger EV test tracks in the future, with more vehicles and more innovative ways to put them into action. How about an off-road circuit with big mounds of dirt, or autonomous vehicles shuttling showgoers from place to place, even to their parked cars? How about the Ford F-150 Lightning powering a makeshift job site or a pop-up coffee shop to draw the crowds?
Regardless of the genesis, driving EVs indoors can breathe new life into auto shows by making them a much more relevant tool for connecting technology with customers. It’s a new way to do what has always been the goal: to put butts in seats.