Tom’s Take: SEMA And Los Angeles AutoMobility — Love And Hate

In the past several weeks, I have been privy to two of the largest car shows in the world. One that introduces aftermarket excitement to enthusiast minions and another that apparently shows OEM manufacturers’ disdain for the automobile.

LA Automobility had virtual reality experiences of driverless cars. YAY!

“Why do the manufacturers hate cars?” questioned my friend Philippe de Lespinay, a longtime friend and automotive entrepreneur. Philippe, who began his career as a designer at Bertone, working on the iconic Alfa Romeo Espada — the wedge styled design that inspired so many supercars — was befuddled by the lack of inspiration in the designs he saw at what was formerly called “The LA Auto Show,” now called “Automobility.” In all honesty, I could not help but agree with him.

The NERDS have officially taken over!

With obvious contempt for the unwashed masses who buy automobiles, Brian Krzanich, CEO of Intel gave the keynote address on Wednesday morning during the “press days” preview. The tech guru explained to the audience how they would be taking the steering wheel out of the driver’s hands ASAP. To add further insult to injury, he introduced, Thomas Gewecke, chief digital officer at Warner Brothers, who talked on turning the self driving cars into movie-themed capsules with virtual reality windows and large movie screens for entertaining the passenger-occupants. Huh? In a brief moment after the keynote, I asked the smiling movie executive a simple question:

“So you want to take the wheel out of our hands and make us watch your movies?”

“That’s exactly right,” came the reply.

“Well that sucks,” I said.

At least they served good coffee concoctions.

The idea of turning your interior into the Batmobile while sensors and super chipped computers drive you from point A to point B is less than appealing to a person who really enjoys driving. Putting the the next generation, who doesn’t want to look up from their mobile devices anyway while Ubering about town, in a rolling video game — this may indeed be the future. What a wonderful world to live in: every morning commute is like a theme park. No wonder as a society we have taken our eye off the ball.

The car has become an appliance for the masses. Indeed there are varying degrees of luxury and comfort, but for most, it carries the same importance to one’s life as, say, their refrigerator. Add to that all the roadside assistance and dealer service, there is no need to change a tire, check your oil, or even lift the bonnet of a car. Sadly, lifting the bonnet of a modern car reveals little besides a big plastic cowl that hides the engine, leaving only an oil fill cap — and less and less — a dipstick.

Mazda and a (very) few others seemed to have inspired designs.

SEMA is a different animal entirely. An eclectic blend of diverse car cultures, all under one roof, supporting the cottage industries that modify and beautify (to varying degrees) cars with loads of aftermarket goodies on display from thousands of companies. The pure passion from the companies and participants was infectious. It gives the car fanatics hope that there is a future. Parts, customization, more parts, exciting accessories — and did I mention parts? There is genuine excitement.

You meet the nicest people at SEMA. (L to R the author, Rich MacDonald of Superformance and Cameron Hausman of Beach Cities Garage)

In pure contrast, walking around Automobility is uninspired, corporate, dry, suit-and-tie empty. The displays are grand, but the cars that occupy the space offer little besides battery-powered and hybrid technologies, wrapped in government mandated template designs. The damn cars have little to differentiate themselves between the average guy consumer cars — with a couple of Jaguar F-types, Mazdas and Porsches to break up the monotony. A bare chassis and mechanicals on display at Mercedes-Benz reveals a hybrid platform with a smaller engine and very large batteries. It’s hard, as a car guy, to get excited about large batteries. Are the car companies responding to consumer demand — or are they responding to government overreach for increased gas milage? Thanks goodness another technology company, Amazon, was there with a full on British Pub-themed lunch stop for media.  That was the highlight of the day.

Small Motors and BIG batteries… Is this really the future?

In a day at SEMA you can walk 20 miles amongst the displays and still not see everything…But it is truly inspiring. Creations made from cars, that at one point, were just boring “refrigerators” off the assembly line were now making a thousand horsepower and scaring the wildlife! Thank goodness for a group like SEMA, that not only supports the industry, but lobbies the government to make sure that classics, customs, race cars and all the related varieties are protected from the long arm of congressional and EPA goofballs — who genuinely hate cars too.

SEMA and Automobility used to be equal in the excitement factor. Executives for car companies were car people — much like current executives for the aftermarket. At some point, the OEMs started recruiting from Ivy-league B-schools — people who wouldn’t care if they were marketing a food brand or an automobile brand. There is no distinction. Which is why the passion for the car by the general public seems to be waning.

This Alfa Romeo, at the Hagerty afterparty, might have been the most interesting car we saw during our Automobility visit.

If Intel’s Krzanich came to SEMA and gave that same “self driving/entertainment” address, it could be assumed he would have been grabbed by the scruff of his neck, dragged into a nearby bathroom and given a “swirlee” and a “wedgee” — just like the nerd deserved. Sadly, Krzanich and Gewecke are probably correct about the future of the automobile and its autonomous stature. My advice: invest in your local “Country Club” race circuit. In twenty years, they may be the only place to actually “drive” a car.

About the author

Tom Stahler

At eight months of age, Tom Stahler sat in a baby stroller in Thunder Valley and watched Chuck Parsons and Skip Scott win the 1968 Road America 500. He has had the car bug ever since. He has won several awards, including the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award and the International Motor Press Association's Gold Medal for his writing and photography. When not chasing the next story, Tom drives a Porsche 968 in vintage road racing events and spends time with his wife and three daughters in Orange County, California.
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