It's a rare occasion for an automotive journalist to leave an event hungry. Yet I and surely many of my colleagues left the Feb. 6 lunch hosted by the Society of Automotive Engineers in downtown Detroit with an appetite for something substantial.

The food at the Rattlesnake Club was top-notch (including a mammoth piece of cheesecake that rivaled the size of my yellow-fin tuna fillet). The disappointment came after the meal when the program began.

This was the annual media preview designed to stir a little excitement in advance of the SAE Congress — the “center of the universe,” as Arv Mueller says, for all things related to automotive engineering.

Since December, Detroit's media outlets had reported the loss of major exhibitors at this year's Congress. It's generally assumed that SAE wants to do something to bring back these exhibitors next year.

So I expected to leave this event with one of two stories:

  • The first reads something like this: OK, SAE has lost a lot of huge so-called “anchor tenants.” The folks at SAE seem eager to confront this issue head-on, and they want to know why all these companies are gone. And, hey, they have some great ideas to improve the event — ideas so good that DuPont and TRW will rue the day they decided to give up their spots next to the main entrance.

  • The second: SAE, being unusually frank, recognizes that the dynamics of the auto industry have changed dramatically over the past decade. SAE acknowledges that the top suppliers no longer need the Congress as a venue for showcasing their latest technology. Why put it on the show floor for the competition to see when, instead, you can do a deep-dive private showing? And, geez, it's expensive for any company to design, build and staff a booth. No one can blame suppliers for pinching pennies as the downturn dawns.

With that said, SAE is perfectly comfortable recasting its Congress as an event geared more toward Tier 2 suppliers and below. It's ideal because the Tier 1s still want to come to the Congress, but they just don't want to spend a fortune exhibiting there. And Tier 1s are becoming more like OEMs, anyway.

These two stories would have been compelling, but they were nowhere to be found. Not once during the program did any speaker even mention the departure of these suppliers, let alone try to explain the motivation behind leaving the Congress. That's a bit like talking to a group of Titanic survivors about only the first half of their voyage.

I got what I needed in a one-on-one interview afterward with SAE's Dave Amati, who is more than accommodating and willing to talk about SAE's challenges.

But I can't help but think that this was a golden opportunity missed. It was a chance for SAE to show that it, like its working members, can learn to think “outside the box,” to loosen up, to break new ground.

I write this with the best of intentions, to be perceived as constructive criticism rather than a cheap shot, partly for selfish reasons. I want the Congress to be its best and for its press conferences during the week to be newsworthy so that my time is well spent.

People ask if Ward's will still cover the Congress now that the biggest exhibitors are gone. Of course we will. I'm actually looking forward to a change. I don't need SAE to know that Delphi and Visteon are working on telematics, yet those would be the types of news conferences that would occupy our days at SAE.

This year, I'll probably get more out of SAE because I'll have time to meet up with new suppliers and talk technology in more detail. And I'll stay away from the cheesecake.

WHO STAYED

  • American Axle & Mfg.
  • Behr America
  • Bosal North America
  • Robert Bosch
  • Covisint
  • Denso
  • Emitec
  • Guide
  • Kolbenschmidt Pierburg
  • Mahle
  • Mannesmann
  • Microsoft
  • Siemens
  • Sirius Satellite Radio
  • Steyr-Daimler-Puch
  • Unigraphics
  • Valeo
  • ZF North America

WHO'S GONE

  • ArvinMeritor
  • Autoliv
  • The Budd Co.
  • Dana
  • Delphi
  • DuPont Automotive
  • Eaton
  • Faurecia
  • GKN
  • Hella
  • Lear
  • Magneti Marelli
  • Motorola
  • Sanluis Rassini
  • TI Group (Walbro-Bundy)
  • TRW
  • Visteon
  • Yazaki