2018 Chicago Auto Show Highlights

It was my favorite time of year where, conveniently for me, all my beloved car manufacturers were together under one roof. That’s right, the Chicago Auto Show was back! And Traceable Change went to check out the show experience, design trends, and new technology.

The experiences identified last year, manufacturers providing comfortable lounge seating, unique entertainment options, and promotional gifts to keep attendees immersed in their exhibits for as long as possible, were present and even more prominent this time around. What caught our eye this year was the abundance of interactive experiences, the exchange of data in order to participate in those experiences, and the use of virtual reality among brands.

State Farm Lounge

Toyota Digital Postcard

Honda Fidget Spinner Prize

Volva VR Exhibit


In addition to admiring my many (can’t have just one!) dream cars at the show, I found myself participating in a variety of interactive experiences that were thoughtfully crafted by the different manufacturers to create lasting brand impressions on attendees.

There were the traditional test drive courses at Toyota, Jeep, and Kia, plus a live dyno demonstration of the Ford Mustang GT. Jeep’s off-road obstacle course was a must, and well worth the long line we had to wait in. Though we hoped to experience the steep inclines and rocky terrain of the track in the new Wrangler Unlimited, we ended up in a luxuriously appointed Grand Cherokee and enjoyed the live demonstration of its features and capabilities.

Honda Fidget Spinner Prize

Volva VR Exhibit

Gaming had a strong presence amongst the exhibits as well. Volkswagen actually modified two of their Golf GTI cars to become life-size video game controllers that participants used to race each other around a simulated track. This setup was not only a childhood dream come true for a former PS1 Gran Turismo enthusiast like myself, but also an opportunity for attendees to spend time in the cockpit of the fan favorite vehicle and build a lasting memory with the brand.

Honda also created an opportunity for attendees to connect with their brand through a curated, interactive journey, initiated at a giant kiosk in the middle of the booth. After providing their information, participants were given a wrist band to tap at each check point and mark completion of each step. Highlights of this journey included a HoloLens (headset) overview of the new Accord that drew attention to new vehicle features by superimposing bold 3D graphics onto a real car and the Dream Machine photo canon.

Honda Journey Smart Band Sign Up

Honda Journey Checkpoint

The Dream Machine is a little hard to explain, but you can see below that it’s essentially a tablet attached to back of a whimsical canon. After selecting a vehicle with your preferred features and taking a selfie on the tablet, a composite animation was created and “shot” onto a large display screen. When you fired the canon, a circular puff of smoke came out and traveled up to the display screen where, upon impact, the animation magically appeared for everyone to see.

Step 1: Select a vehicle

Step 2: Take a selfie

Step 3: Shoot the image up onto the display screen

Capturing images of attendees alongside products was a trend this year among other brands, as well. Toyota, for instance, offered digital postcards where attendees could have photos taken with their favorite vehicle and have the image sent to their email to commemorate their auto show experience. Toyota also created a mural sized mosaic of an Olympic athlete by turning photos of attendees into the individual tiles that formed the image. This mural was particularly interesting because of the sense of community it created, requiring attendees to build the image together and act as a small piece of the larger puzzle.

Toyota's Digital Postcard Booth

Toyota Photo Mosaic Mural

Step 1: Take a photo in front of the mosaic

Step 2: Enter your data

Step 3: Receive a polaroid to commemorate the experience and your mosaic square to add to the mural

Step 4: Add your mosaic square to the mural


Most of these interactive experiences required attendees to provide several personal data points as currency to participate. I was frequently asked to provide my name, contact information, zip code, and, in some cases, even my opinion about the brand and their products.

Honda Journey Sign Up

Jaguar Sign Up

Jeep Obstacle Course Sign Up

In the moment, I was focused on accessing the activity and didn’t think twice about giving my information away. Yet, as I reflected on the experience, I wished brands/manufacturers had been more transparent about how they planned to use my information. I have some assumptions, but setting expectations during the sign-up process would have been preferable to being left wondering after the experience.

In addition to the lack of transparency, it felt tedious to enter the same information over and over again for each activity. By the last data entry point, I was ready to abandon the experience altogether and go get a latte instead. I would recommend a more streamlined data collection process, such as the wristband model Honda used that required only one data collection instance to access all the activities within their booth.


One of the most notable trends this year was the presence of VR, which offered attendees new and immersive ways to experience different products. There was a wide spectrum of VR experiences across different brands/manufacturers, from giving attendees a look around the cockpit of a concept car to providing full driving experiences.

Jaguar's VR Exhibit A

At the Jaguar booth, attendees were able to experience the interior of the new, all electric, I-Pace first-hand, despite the vehicle not being physically present at the show.

Volvo's VR Exhibit

Volvo sat attendees in beautiful Scandinavian furniture and used VR to exhibit two of their more progressive vehicle features: collision avoidance and autonomous driving.

Ford's VR Exhibit

Ford’s VR experience demonstrated what it was like to drive around town in their new Transit Connect van with autonomous features.

Chevrolet's VR Exhibit

Chevrolet’s comprehensive set-up combined VR with a responsive seating system that gave attendees a more realistic first-hand driving experience.

Virtual reality is a great technology to employ in the auto show setting as it gives attendees a feel for the vehicle and/or feature without the unfavorable (for some) dealership experience. Yet, it felt like some of the experiences, especially those that didn’t provide a first-hand perspective, could have been achieved by simply watching a video as opposed to strapping on a bulky headset. Using VR in an intentional way demonstrated the value of the technology versus feeling gimmicky.

First-hand VR environments also have a huge potential to positively impact the shopping and buying experience at dealerships, as the VR set-ups could be used to help onboard customers to new vehicle features and build a sense of trust and comfort with new in-car technologies such as autonomous driving or collision avoidance. Experimenting with these new features and technologies for the first time in a virtual environment, as opposed to a real car, could alleviate safety risks and the fear of the technology failing.


Lastly, I’d like to give a nod to a few of the new models and style treatments that caught our eye and kept us talking long after the show.

Lexus LS: We loved the hand pleated fabric and glass detail on the interior door panels. – Link to see more

Mazda CX5: The dramatic intersection of the bonnet, grill, chrome trim, and headlights was beautiful, and slightly reminiscent of the latest model BMW 3 series. – Link to see more

Mazda CX5: The dramatic intersection of the bonnet, grill, chrome trim, and headlights was beautiful, and slightly reminiscent of the latest model BMW 3 series. – Link to see more

Mazda CX5: The dramatic intersection of the bonnet, grill, chrome trim, and headlights was beautiful, and slightly reminiscent of the latest model BMW 3 series. – Link to see more

Till next year! Or until I visit the next dealership…we’ll I’ve already visited two since the Auto Show, but we’ll talk about that soon!

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