Car manufacturers can conjure a stirring vision of the future, but as the Geneva Motor Show demonstrates, it’s difficult to balance this with the need to sell cars in the present.
In recent weeks we’ve seen major consumer shows setting out various different visions of the future of driving. They’ve showcased innovative and inspiring concepts that have fired the imaginations of consumers and commentators alike. At a time when our sector faces fundamental challenges and opportunities around sustainable fuel, regulation and the potential of driverless and connected car technology, it’s no surprise that this should happen. But what is surprising, and ought to be thought-provoking, is which shows it’s been happening at.
It’s certainly not the Geneva Motor Show, which has been taking place this week, and serving up a classic exhibition of high-end automotive performance and old-school luxury vehicles, with souped-up sports cars and SUVs to the fore. Close your eyes a little bit and walk around Geneva, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported back in time five or even ten years. This is an auto industry that’s comfortable pushing the same consumer buttons that it was back then.
Contrast this with the vehicles on display at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas less than two months ago, or at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week. CES isn’t a motor show, of course, but from massive buzz generated by Mercedes’ F015 Luxury in Motion concept, the self-driving Audi A7or Volkswagen’s Golf R Touch, you’d be forgiven for thinking it is. Likewise, connected cars from Fords and Fiats to Maseratis rolled in to steal the show in Barcelona. These were events where broad enthusiasm for a new vision of motoring seemed in ample supply. They were a natural step forward from the Paris Motor Show, back in October, when new fuel technologies and connected cars were firmly on the agenda. Yet the F015, A7 and R Touch were all absent from Geneva. And save for Rinspeed’s predictably gimmicky driverless car concept, so was any serious innovation from anyone else.
In part this comes down to the nature of the Geneva Motor Show itself. Geneva plays a unique role within the annual round of auto industry conventions, as the show at which high-end auto buyers are most likely to be shopping for their next vehicle. This puts the emphasis on manufacturers to focus on cars that they genuinely believe will sell, and as a result this week in Switzerland can be seen as a reality check for the industry. In Las Vegas, Barcelona and to a certain extent at Paris, manufacturers can put forward a compelling vision of the future; at Geneva they focus on what they genuinely believe consumers are ready for in the present.
The divergent roles of Las Vegas, Barcelona and Geneva reflect the fact that the auto industry is currently talking to several different audiences at once – and it’s starting to say rather different things to each of them. For the early adopters at CES, it’s ready to talk about re-engineering the very concept of driving to meet the challenges of the 21st century; for the regulators there are the numerous press conferences at Geneva listing emissions reductions; and for auto buyers there are the high-performance vehicles and growing range of SUVs on the actual show floor this week. The trick will be bringing all of these separate conversations back together, without getting caught out in the process.
The current consumer reality clearly has some room for innovation. Laser headlights, improved mobile phone connectivity and innovative new dashboard displays such as that of the new Audi TT all feature at Geneva, but their role is a supporting one. They are additional, aspirational features that can be easily integrated into driving experiences that consumers already understand. This is very different to selling a new experience of driving. At the moment the auto industry is only comfortable doing so for the audience in Las Vegas or Barcelona. Judging when to do so for the audience in Geneva will be the biggest challenge facing manufacturers over the next few years.