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March 6, 2020

Where are those innovations in mobility? Geneva Motor Show 2017

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Electrification, digitisation and autonomous driving: The mega trends of the automotive industry were all to be seen at this year’s Geneva Motor Show. However, most of them were limited to words and videos rather than concept or even series cars. 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, entering the Geneva Motor Show after consuming the highly elaborated press releases and PR-driven news articles, the question remained what this actually means. 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 be driving “electrically and autonomously”, but truth is: this future is yet to come.

Back to the present, to Geneva 2017. Concluding that there were no new cars would be wrong – but the impression developed that there was an apparent lack of real innovation. To be precise: there were hardly any new powertrain and mobility concepts. For fans of conventional vehicle designs, the exhibition had more than enough to offer. Following the well-established rationale of exclusivity, power and emotion, there was a lot to gaze at. Geneva has always been home to this type of cars. 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 tell the story, to mention just a few.

Didn’t we talk about an industry which is changing for new concepts of mobility, about electrification and the big picture of saving the planet? Let’s try to be positive: There was a growing number of hybrid vehicles to be seen although the exciting ones belonged again to the category in which you would not try to argue in favour of a need rather than enjoyment, e.g. the much-admired Mercedes-AMG GT Concept or the mighty Audi Q8 concept. The same holds true for full electric cars powered by batteries or in few cases fuel cells. There were some of these as well but the most visible ones belonged again 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.

However 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 power trains. Luckily, there were some examples of these as well.

One technology in the race for the powertrain of the future is the fuel cell. Next to Toyota and Honda which both featured fuel-cell electric vehicles already in or close to production, Hyundai showed of the Futuristic FE Fuel Cell Concept which at least integrates an electric micro-scooter supporting its driver on the infamous last mile. VW showed of the electrified and autonomously driving I.D. Buzz and Daimler presented its new Concept EQ; Jaguar showcased the brand new electric SUV i-Pace which is expected to launch in 2018. All the above fall into the category of existing packages using new powertrain technology and represent a step towards the electrified and partially autonomous future.

Still, in many cases these cars were kind of hidden and easy to overlook between the conventional vehicles at display. BMW, once far ahead of its competition with the innovative BMW i3 and i8 models, parked their electric flag-ships deeply hidden on the booth in favour of giving way to face-lifted yet conventional volume models. The same with Volkswagen, where the electric Golf and hybrid Passat GTE and Golf GTE models where to be found somewhere in the rear of the booth.

There is only one interpretation: The automotive industry appears to be ambivalent regarding its future. On the one hand, OEMs tell us they are aware of the fact that in some point in time, conventional vehicles as we know and buy them today will not be needed any more. However, as this implies a dramatic change to the business model which has served many of the companies extremely well in decades past, they are inclined to keep on showing what really matters to motorists all over the world. 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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