Wandering the car-lined aisles in Cobo Hall for the Detroit auto show, one expects to find hoards of journalists scurrying every which way from one exhibit to another. The latest models sit atop various turntables ensconced in the automakers’ display booths. And there, every 20 minutes or so, will be a plethora of boom microphones and TV cameras conducting a mass interview of a hapless chief product engineer whose baby has just seen the light of day.
What one does not expect to encounter is a seething throng, some 80 strong, inching along a convention thoroughfare, TV cameras on booms high overhead pointed almost straight down on the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who can barely move a step without getting trampled. Even before they reach their digital recorders overhead, the reporters tower over Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who must be all of five-foot-four and cannot possibly see any of the gleaming sheetmetal she has come to explore.
This throng scours the edges of the aisle clear of any innocent bystanders. You turn the other way quickly and decisively, or you are caught up in its tentacles.
Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of Italian automaker Fiat and Chrysler Group LLC, is holding court on the progress he says the company is making, confident in the rapt attention of his captive audience. Pelosi smiles politely. What else can she do?
The realities of the Detroit this year
This year, long after the U.S. government took a stake in Chrysler and GM, several politicians came to Cobo Center to check on their investment. Among the dignitaries on hand, Pelosi and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held press conferences that book ended the first day.
Neither divulged any revelations, instead spewing platitudes about progress and non-specific assurances that the government investments in the automakers would be paid back.
Without federal assistance, Chrysler or GM may not have been at the show—or even around in recognizable form. A sobering thought, as we recall those corporate titans were in a precarious position just months before.
Progress at the Detroit auto show was measured by survival and hope. Few automakers referred to the 2009 auto crisis, beyond expressing gratitude that it is behind them. Hyundai and Subaru were among the rare companies that faired reasonably well and seemed to be building momentum.
It is clear that it will take more than political speeches and public appearances to turn around the beleaguered industry. It will take an improved economy, right-sized industry, and compelling, practical product. The latter has been evident in some models unveiled in Detroit, though we’d welcome more.
See our complete 2010 Detroit Auto Show coverage.