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Influencer, Best-Selling Author Taking Stage in Early Days of Detroit Auto Show

September 4, 2023

Detroit Free Press
Sept. 2, 2023
Carol Cain

Like thousands of enthusiasts from across the globe, futurist and influencer Malcolm Gladwell is geeked as he prepares to head to the Motor City in two weeks to attend the 2023 Detroit auto show and be part of the conversation about the road ahead for this vital industry.

The show — staged by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association — is one of the biggest auto events in the country as everyone, from CEOs of companies big and small to manufacturers hoping to gain global media attention for their products to entrepreneurs with newfangled technology tied to everything from EVs to flying cars, gravitate to the show that takes place Sept. 13-24 at Huntington Place in Detroit.

Gladwell, a best-selling author who has a podcast called “Revisionist History,” will be part of the inaugural North American International Auto Show’s Mobility Global Forum Sept. 13-14 at Huntington and offer his insights Sept. 14 during a fireside chat with John McElroy, host of “Autoline.” The public can buy a $75 ticket to the event and, with it, access to the show and displays during industry days, when crowds are far smaller.

I touched base with Gladwell this week in advance of his appearance and found out he’s been infatuated with cars since the age of 5.

“I am obsessed!” he said. “I think I’ve read every issue of Car and Driver and Car magazine for the last 30 years. I spend way too much time on Bring A Trailer (a website for classic and vintage autos) and I change my cars way, way too often.”

What’s he driving today?

“The best thing in my garage at the moment is a 2003 BMW M5 and a 2023 Cadillac CT4V Blackwing, which is, without question, the best car I’ve ever driven,” he said.

He lives in New York and has never been to the Detroit show (though he has attended New York’s, which isn’t the same). In 2021, he was featured in a GM ad campaign for electric vehicles.

But now he’s headed to the Motor City, where Henry Ford and other entrepreneurs put the pedal to the floor on making cars for everyday folks and changed the world. History is playing out again as the industry undergoes another revolution with EVs taking center stage, which will be an important part of the show.

“I had a chance to hear him speak at the South By Southwest (the annual event held in Austin, Texas, which draws an assortment of leading politicos, CEOs, entertainers) a few years ago,” Rod Alberts, executive director of DADA, said of Gladwell. “I was blown away and knew we wanted to have him speak at our show. This seemed the perfect time to have him come speak with so much going on.”

Gladwell is best-selling author of: “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers,” “What the Dog Saw,” “David and Goliath” and “Talking to Strangers.” He’s been named one of the 100 most influential people by TIME magazine and one of the Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers.

Thad Szott, chairman of the auto show, said: “We’re extremely pleased to launch the first year of our Mobility Global Forum with a phenomenal best-selling author who has taken the business world by storm. His presentation, together with the incredible roster of speakers we have planned over two days, will provide a compelling look at the dynamic world of new mobility and our place in it.”

In addition to Gladwell, the Mobility Global Forum will include 30 top executives from Pininfarina SpAGoogleWalker-Miller Energy ServicesMichAutoAmerican Center for Mobility and Cox Automotive.

Chip Ganassi, race team owner and member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame, will also be on hand.

Gladwell’s going to talk about today’s car culture and what he sees ahead in 10, 20 or 50 years.

A new day for the show

There’s no show quite like Detroit’s. I say this as someone who has attended it for years — way before I ever covered it as a journalist. (My late father, Charles Cain, was an auto writer for the Associated Press and talk of autos was often dinner fodder on Sunday nights.)

Everyone knows the industry is rapidly changing and, with it, auto shows.

Seems like only a few years ago I recall a more whimsical approach to product debuts at the show, including when a stampede of cattle on the streets of downtown Detroit was part of a debut of a new Dodge Ram or a Jeep smashing through the window of Cobo was a theatrical debut at the 1992 show.

Or Kid Rock, Mary J. Blige and Maroon 5 performing onstage in 2008 as new GM vehicles rolled by. Who could forget seeing Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and GM executive Bob Lutz in the audience busting a move as everyone in the audience did, too.

Ford grabbed attention in 2018 with its digital exhibit as part of its elaborate display, which included the opportunity to sit in a screened area as the automaker taped you and inserted you into a gripping car chase scene featuring Steve McQueen in the iconic film “Bullitt,” where it appeared you were driving the Ford Mustang GT.

Yep, simpler times.

Amid the technology revolution, there’s more pressure to showcase important products for the manufacturers, too. There’s also been massive change in the media landscape and things like product placement opportunities in movies, which has made competing for vehicle debuts from the manufacturers for auto shows more challenging.

I’ve watched as Detroit show organizers nimbly adjust and then recalibrate. They’ve worked overtime and, as a result, things are looking up for the upcoming show as they will feature six new product debuts (twice as many as last year’s show) from Ford, General Motors and Stellantis (round of applause please for supporting the home team).

But this is about more than simply supporting the show. This event is critical to Detroit and our state from an economic and image standpoint. Collectively, the region has been working to lead in this new world of mobility, which encompasses jobs, technology and transportation, not only today but tomorrow.

Also new at the show that’s sure to be a hit with car buff folks like Gladwell: Tesla and Ford will offer street course EV rides outside of Huntington, along the actual Detroit riverfront portion of the Chevy Detroit Grand Prix race circuit. And Volkswagen, BMW, GMC, Chevy, Cadillac, Ford and Tesla will also have EV vehicles for rides along a serpentine track inside Huntington that includes a 300-foot-long portion meant for speed.

The charity preview will be held Sept. 15 and raise big money for area children’s charities as entertainers Jennifer Hudson and Shaggy take to the stage, auto show organizers said. Tickets are available for it as well: naias.com/buy-tickets.

The show will be open to the public Sept. 16-24. This is where the rubber meets the road as the ultimate test of how consumers and influencers inside Huntington feel about the vehicles and technology they will see and get a chance to experience.

It’s a multimillion-dollar extravaganza, with much riding on it as automakers aim to entice consumers to buy their products — and it’s borrowing a page from the past as that’s precisely how the Detroit show began in 1907.

For information about the Gladwell event and show tickets: naias.com or call 248-643-0250 or 888-838-7500.