10 Surprising Things I Learned About the Auto Industry at the SEMA Show

Electric cars need mechanics. The auto biz has a lot of fun jobs. Monster trucks can be hydrogen-powered. We learned these and more surprising facts at the 2023 SEMA Show.

Me With Pro Drifter Kelsey Rowlings
Me with pro drifter Kelsey Rowlings. Photo: Annika Carter

The SEMA Show Gave Us a Behind the Scenes Peek at the Future

Early every November 150,000 people descend on Las Vegas for the Specialty Equipment Marketing Association, or the SEMA Show, the largest large automotive trade show. This show focuses on the “aftermarket,” or the market for gear for cars after they’re built. It features vendors who sell tools and parts, modifiers who modify cars for racing or off-roading, and suppliers of things all drivers will need, such as tires, oil and windshield wipers. Mainstream automakers get in on the action, too, with special versions of their own cars, partnerships with accessories companies and more. It’s a true car enthusiasts dream. 

The SEMA Show is the fourth largest convention in the US and one of the largest in Las Vegas each year. It takes up 1.25 million square feet, including the entire Las Vegas Convention Center as well as three exterior parking lots. I learned the hard way that if you are planning to attend SEMA, be sure to wear comfortable shoes. The shortest distance I walked in a single day was 7.5 miles.

And while SEMA is intended for industry professionals, it also attracts enthusiasts who love to see the modified cars, the race cars and more. So SEMA lets consumers in on the fun, too; a separate public event, called SEMA Fest (previously SEMA Ignited) takes place Friday evening and Saturday.

There is a lot to take in, but the trends are pretty clear. Here are eight things I learned while touring the 2023 SEMA Show.

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Modified Off Roaders Like This Ford Bronco, Built By A Team Of Women, Are Popular At The Sema Show

Modified off roaders like this Ford Bronco, built by a team of women, are popular at the SEMA Show. Photo: Annika Carter

1. There Are a Lot of Jobs in Automotive, and More In the Future

When you think about automotive careers, the first thing that comes to mind is probably a mechanic, followed by a car salesman or people who work in automotive retail. But the automotive industry is so much more than that. If you are passionate about cars, no matter what you do, there likely is a sector for you.

From technology and innovation, to marketing,  business, computers, media, litigation, there is a subset of the automotive industry for everyone – and if you love cars, why shouldn’t you work in an industry that you’re passionate about?

Related: Toyota Shows Off Vintage and Performance-Inspired Models at SEMA

Toyotas Hydrogen Fuel Cell System

Toyotas Hydrogen fuel cell system. Photo: Annika Carter

2. Electric Cars Aren’t the Only Future of Alternative Fuels

With electric cars growing in the popularity and many manufacturers making pledges to stop producing gas-powered cars in the future, alternative fuels were a big conversation at this year’s SEMA show. Hydrogen powered vehicles were on display, with known brands like Toyota showing hydrogen-powered cars and trucks, including a semi truck cab; there were brands showing more hybrid gas/electric drivetrains (which we’ve become used to now), including those from new automakers like Karma; and EV-conversion kits that convert any gas powered car into an electric powerhouse.

And I saw the first ever hydrogen powered monster truck from a company called Red Line. This incredible creation has zero carbon emissions but still emits the bone-rattling exhaust note we love from these big trucks. How crazy is that?

Related: Off-Road Accessories Complete the Outfit: Lexus Dresses Up its SUVs

The Red Line Hydrogen Powered Monster Truck

The Red Line hydrogen powered monster truck. Photo: Annika Carter

3. There’s a Big Future in Maintaining Electric Cars

When I think of the issues of consumers adapting electric cars, I typically think of charging stations, the speed at which EVs charge and how much (or little) range they have. But the challenges go beyond just charging and into the skilled trades, too. Electric cars bring a whole new opportunity for mechanics, and the challenge to the industry is to help ramp up this business. Electric car mechanics will need new tools and to learn new processes in order to successfully maintain EVs, which, although they don’t need regular oil changes, have already shown to need more maintenance than many expected.

More importantly, new training procedures and safety protocols must be implemented in shops that work on EVs, as the amperage of the batteries can be more than enough to cause a fire or serious damage.

Related: The Future of Cars Blossoms at the World’s Largest Car Parts Convention

Hot Race Cars Like This Hoonigan Modified Porsche Are A Hot Topic At The Sema Show Copy

Hot race cars like this Hoonigan modified Porsche are a hot topic at the SEMA Show copy. Photo: Annika Carter

4. The Aftermarket Car Parts Industry is Huge

As governments pay more attention to safety, auto emissions, computer data and other regulated areas of automotive, mechanics and consumers that focus on modified cars and trucks can feel under the microscope. Still, the aftermarket automotive industry is pushing on with more innovations, more consumer solutions and more enthusiastic customers than ever. 

It was evident this year as SEMA returned to pre-COVID levels of attendance, with around 2,400 exhibitors and more than  160,000 guests. To keep the automotive aftermarket economy on track, SEMA is dedicated to lobbying governments to allow automotive enthusiasts, consumers, and professionals to maintain their ability to modify cars, trucks and other vehicles.

This Display Shows Attendees The Innerworkings Of Karmas Hybrid Car

This display shows attendees the innerworkings of Karmas hybrid car. Photo: Annika Carter

5. Automotive Innovation is Constantly Happening

It may not be hard to see innovation when shopping to replace your 10-year-old car – the analog gauges have been replaced by a digital screen, the navigation system actually works and the car can basically drive itself now. But it is a lot harder to see innovation on a year-by-year basis in our daily life.

That is, until you go to SEMA. Almost every booth seems to have a sign advertising “New for 2024.” From manufacturer’s concept vehicles to small companies releasing a new tool or car part, innovations big and small keep us progressing as a society.

6. Electric Cars Are Part of the Aftermarket, Too

EV technology seems is the hot thing in the new car market, but I was surprised by the number of aftermarket companies advertising new electric conversions for gas-powered vehicles. In fact, Legacy EV performed a live electric powertrain swap on a 1930s Ford during the show. The electric drivetrain is intended to help the younger generation growing up in a digital world fall in love with old muscle cars.

Me With Pro Drifter Kelsey Rowlings

Me with pro drifter Kelsey Rowlings. Photo: Annika Carter

7. People Love Drifting – and Rightfully So!

Since the creation of Formula Drift in 2003 and the sensation of 2006’s The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift, the sport of drifting has grown exponentially, especially in recent years with popular YouTubers beginning to participate in the sport.

For those who are unfamiliar, drifting is the art of sliding a car through the curves of a race track. Instead of taking a corner like a race car does, drifters will purposefully turn the front wheels while sliding the rear wheels, creating a huge cloud of smoke and leaving rubber treads on the pavement. Outside in the Las Vegas Convention center’s parking lots were not two, but three drifting displays attended by the largest crowds I saw all week.

I had the opportunity of riding along with Formula Drift Pro Spec drifter (and my friend) Kelsey Rowlings at the Optima Battery lot and let me tell you, if you ever get the opportunity to hop in the passenger seat of a drift car, do it.

Hot Race Cars Like This Hoonigan Modified Porsche Are A Hot Topic At The Sema Show Copy

Hot race cars like this Hoonigan modified Porsche are a hot topic at the SEMA Show copy. Photo: Annika Carter

8. The Things We Don’t See Keep the Automotive Business Going

Only a quarter of car sales each year are new cars. Three quarters of sales are used cars, and those cars need more parts, supplies and maintenance than new cars. That means that the less exciting items, the ones we see on shelves at auto parts stores, Costco and Target –  detailing supplies, seat covers, car accessories, wheels and tires  – are a large focus of the SEMA Show. 

But perhaps the largest portion of the show is the behind the scenes – technology for automotive technicians and shops to make running their businesses easier; the newest tools for working on cars, mounting tires, or removing EV batteries; or software to manage customer databases and monitor customer service intervals.

We don’t think of these unsung heroes on a daily basis, but it is the innovation in this sector that really keeps the automotive business going.


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Annika Carter has over four years of performance driving experience, both with and without professional instruction. She has driven... More about Annika Carter