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Strategy Engineers on Geneva Motor Show 2017

Electrification, digitisation and autonomous driving: The mega trends of the automotive industry were on everybody’s lips at this year’s Geneva Motor Show. However, most was talk and videos, rather than materialized in concept let alone series production vehicles. Long story short: We were missing the real innovations.

Coming from a turbulent year which saw an ever-growing number of OEMs involved in dirty diesel engines and declining trust in their brands as a result thereof, CEOs were busy outlining a bright future transformed by smart vehicles – seamlessly integrated into their owner’s lives and the environment, emission-free in use and environmentally friendly in production. However, after consuming the highly elaborated press releases and PR-driven news articles we can’t help but to leave the Geneva Motor Show with a hollow feeling. After all, the highlights in Geneva 2017 were the same as in decades before: sports and concept cars oozing power and reflecting the joy of automotive mobility rather than a vision for the mobility of the future.

VW CEO Matthias Müller might be saying that “the vehicle of the future is intelligent, connected and smart” and will drive “electrically and autonomously”, but anyone who expected these statements to be materialized in technology showcases was left eagerly looking and finding little. Concluding that there were no new cars at Geneva would be wrong – but the impression developed that there was an apparent lack of innovations leading the industry into the future that has been so brightly painted featuring fully connected, fully autonomous and emission free mobility.

For fans of conventional vehicle designs, the exhibition had more than enough to offer. Geneva has always been home to exciting of cars. Following the well-established rationale of exclusivity, power and emotion, there was a lot to gaze at. Be it the newly launched Audi RS3 or RS5 sports models, the luxurious Bentley Bentayga Mulliner, the light Lamborghini Huracán Performante with a new track record on the Nürburgring or the likes of Porsche 911 GT3, McLaren 720S and Ferrari 812 Superfast. More examples needed? The names Abt, Brabus, Gemballa, Koenigsegg, Mansory, Pagani, Ruf or Techart have fostered Geneva as the Motor Show for performance enthusiasts yet another year.

So, where were the vehicles on which the industry plans to build the future of mobility, electrification and generally saving the planet? Let’s try to be positive: Yes, there were quite a few vehicles featuring electrified powertrains on display. Unfortunately, again most of those belong to the exclusive range of supercars affordable to – if ever sold – only the fewest of us, e.g. the Artega Scalo Superelletra, the Bentley EXP 12 Speed 6e, the Pininfarina H2 Speed, the Rimac Concept One or the Vanda Electrics Dendrobium. The much-admired Mercedes-AMG GT Concept and even more so the mighty Audi Q8 Concept appear within closer reach for vehicle customers, but their performance and size respectively also do not qualify them to as “the green cars our future needs”.

Regardless of how beautiful and mind-bendingly fast these cars might be, none of them will ever help to solve the challenges automotive OEMs are facing in their volume segments and on a larger scale going forward. What will be needed rather than yet another electric supercar are for example affordable small-size, large-volume electric vehicles to relief congested city centres. In the end, this will require entirely new vehicle concepts which in turn require a transition period of existing vehicle concepts utilising new powertrains. Luckily, there were some examples of these as well.

One technology, which is in the race for the powertrain of the future (and still largely neglected by European and US American OEMs) is the fuel cell, pioneered by Japanese manufacturers. Next to Toyota and Honda which have fuel-cell electric vehicles either already in production or are close to their introduction, Korea’s Hyundai showed off the Futuristic FE Fuel Cell Concept -  which by the way integrates an electric micro-scooter supporting its driver on the infamous last mile in congested city centres with sparse parking opportunities.

So, were there no promising new concepts for the future of mobility at all in Geneva? Of course, there were – but you had to go looking for them. VW showed the electrified and autonomously driving I.D. Buzz, Daimler presented its new Concept EQ, and Jaguar showcased the brand new electric SUV i-Pace which is expected to launch in 2018. Still, in many cases these cars were kept out of the spotlights, in some cases even hidden away and generally easy to overlook between the conventional vehicles on show. Rather than directing the attention to the all electric Golf and hybrid Passat and Golf GTE models the Volkswagen Group chose to put Audi’s range of g‑tron models, which are powered by conventional engines running on compressed natural gas, front and centre.

There is only one interpretation: The automotive industry appears to be ambivalent regarding its future. OEMs restlessly tell us that they are not only aware of the fact that new vehicle concepts will be needed, but they also claim to be at the forefront of this development. However, they apparently struggle to find their way and continue to cater to what motorists around the globe have been asking for over the past decades – which are increasingly powerful yet affordable conventionally powered vehicles. Unfortunately, this will not lead forward.

Was it all that bad then? No. Three vehicles suggested that there is at least real potential to showcase ways out of the industry’s current dilemma: the compact and fun-to-look-at Toyota i-TRIL Concept, the autonomously driving and reduced to the minimum urban vehicle concept VW Sedric (Self-driving car) and last but not least the Italdesign Airbus Pop Up – a combination of a small passenger cell which can either be mounted on top of a drive unit for street application or hooked onto a quadrocopter to escape in case of heavy traffic. Still, the strategic question remains of how a brand can move on towards the future which is so much talked about while continuing to follow the tracks well beaten. It remains to be seen when the actual revolution in the automotive industry will take place.

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