Nissan showed off the Ariya Concept at CES last January. Will automakers go with the show in 2021 when it becomes an internet-only event.

It’s been a tough year for auto shows, virtually every major global event this year, from New York to Paris to Beijing, canceled in the face of the coronavirus crisis. And what will happen in 2021 is far from certain, but the coming year could get off to a bad start.

Organizers now say they plan to go to an “all-digital” format for CES in January. Better known as the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual show has become a major event for automakers at a time when their vehicles are becoming increasingly high tech. Dozens of automakers and auto suppliers filled an entire wing of the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center in January 2020.

“Amid the pandemic and growing global health concerns about the spread of COVID-19, it’s just not possible to safely convene tens of thousands of people in Las Vegas in early January 2021 to meet and do business in person,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of CTA, the group that runs the annual show.

(Best, weirdest and most notable autos and auto tech at CES.)

In a statement, organizers attempted to put a positive spin on the turn of events, suggesting there’s a positive side to staging CES online. In more normal years, the convention center is packed almost to the breaking point, making it difficult to get into many displays and presentations. By going online, the CTA suggested, virtual visitors will enjoy “an immersive experience, where attendees will have a front row seat.”

Automakers have become prominent players at CES, but now they’re doing their own online events.

Exactly what that means is far from certain. Several traditional CES participants spoke to asked what is meant by “an immersive experience.” Could it translate into three-dimensional virtual reality presentations? Or will it just be more familiar webinars using YouTube, WebEx, Skype, Zoom or any of the myriad other services that have become a familiar part of pandemic life?

There are other questions, as well, starting with whether automakers will see the need to participate in an online CES when they’re already rolling out many of their new products staging web events on their own.

“Do they need to be affiliated? That’s a good question,” said Stephanie Brinley, principal analyst with IHS Markit. “There’s some value to still being affiliated. You’ll still have more eyeballs looking for news,” but it may be “less critical,” since manufacturers can stage their own online events and not have to pay whatever CES organizers will ask to be part of their very nontraditional event.

(Paris Motor Show latest to cancel due to coronavirus pandemic.)

What seems clear is that the internet will remain the primary method for previewing new vehicles – as well as new automotive technologies and services – for some time to come. The Paris Motor Show, which would have been the next on the industry circuit in September, has been scrubbed. The Los Angeles Auto Show is still officially on the calendar in November but industry planners do not expect it to go off this year.

CES has seen a slew of automotive concept vehicles in recent years.

Now, with CES going virtual, there are plenty of questions about what’s to come in 2021, the Chicago Auto Show planned for February coming under the spotlight.

And it’s not just traditional auto shows. The alternative events that have been gaining traction lately, including not just CES but the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance and even the Texas State Fair, have had to cancel due to the pandemic. Then again, so have virtually all other large public events, from political rallies to pro sports.

The auto industry has been struggling to work around the crisis, not only by staging online previews that have, in some cases, drawn millions of eyeballs for new hot products like the Ford Bronco, but also by shifting sales strategies. Most dealers now will let buyers shop online, at most requiring a few “wet” signatures to complete the deal.

(2020 Detroit Auto Show cancelled due to coronavirus pandemic.)

That said, it is difficult to fully replace what is offered by an in-person event, whether a traditional car show or something like CES. But how soon the auto industry can return to anything resembling “normal” is far from clear in this pandemic era.

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