A moderate amount of commentary has been zinging around over the past few weeks about what it means that the Shanghai Auto Show was scheduled during the same week as the New York Auto Show (both are now open to the public). Would carmakers' varying commitments to each show signal where they want to put their time, energy -- and money! -- in the future? For sure, but there's a more critical question: Is the Shanghai show really even about China?
Western spectacles, Eastern backdrop
China has a major problem with its auto industry: it's still relatively immature. The Chinese auto market, on the other hand, is growing rapidly and could hit 40 million new vehicles sold annually by 2020.
So the Chinese car show, which alternates yearly between Shanghai and Beijing, is less about showcasing Chinese cars than it is about providing Western automakers with a venue to express their China strategies and put some shiny sheet metal in front of billions of prospective Chinese buyers.
New York is no Detroit
The car show season stretches from fall through spring and kicks off with the Los Angeles show. Traditionally, it's culminated -- or collapsed from exhaustion, depending on how you look at it -- in New York. The high water mark is the mighty North American International Auto Show, held in Detroit in the middle of the icy Michigan winter.
The chatter about whether China will knock off New York is something of a red herring. New York, because it's the last U.S. show, kind of knocks off itself. Apart from the existential problem of staging an auto show in deeply car-unfriendly Manhattan, there's really no contest: China beats New York, hands down.
In fact, China beats Los Angeles and Chicago, too. And Geneva. And Paris. And Frankfurt. And Tokyo.
The only true competition is Detroit.
And that's just the way Detroit wants it
The Detroit auto show is, of course, the car industry's hometown hootenanny. But the global auto market has evolved to such a degree that Shanghai this year looks a lot like the Oriental Detroit.
This makes sense. For example, General Motors (GM), which is doing better in China than it is in the U.S. (and it's not doing too badly here), intends to bring 40 "new and upgraded models in China during the next five years in a bid to roughly double its sales in the world's top auto market," according to the Detroit News.
The Shanghai show would be pointless without foreign brands
Thinking about this strictly in terms of car shows -- which are designed to fire up media interest and provide customers with reasons to salivate over exciting new products so that they will visit dealerships -- Detroit would probably be delighted if the China shows eclipse even the NAIAS in importance.
After all, no one really cares about Chinese cars, at least not yet. And even when China develops an indigenous auto industry to rival Western and Japanese companies, people may still not care about Chinese cars. China isn't happy about this, but that hasn't stop it from doing joint ventures out the wazoo with foreign partners.
This may change as China enters new export markets and begins a Japan-like march up the auto ladder, arriving first with small, fuel-efficient, inexpensive cars and eventually creating its own Lexii. But for now, the increasing importance of the Chinese auto show isn't about China. It's about the developed-world carmakers' vision of what China can mean for them. Especially Detroit.
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