Let’s go to Geneva, Switzerland, to investigate.
Ah, the Geneva Motor Show. A show that plays host once a year to the world’s car industry, in a country that doesn’t actually make any cars and has made it illegal to wash them on Sundays. In a key respect then, the event is a bit of a dichotomy. I mean, why is Europe’s biggest car show in a place that, if anything, can be seen as ‘a bit against’ the automobile as a mode of transport? Well, we had to go check it out and find out why so many people pay to see stationary cars slowly rotate on a stand.
Within minutes of arrival, the answer is very apparent. We are living in a golden age of the automobile. You may not have noticed it, but we are. Everything is changing before our very eyes. There is a paradigm shift in technology, that started with the smartphone and is now, finally, hitting your car. Well, probably your next car, or the one after that…
The car industry has historically been very slow on the uptake of new electronic innovations. There are many reasons for this, but they all lead back to one. Money. It is expensive to develop new things, to research them, to build them and then to sell them. Automotive manufacturers are under constant legislative pressure for cars to be safer, but also at the same time to be better for the environment. As a rule, stronger materials are either heavy or extremely expensive. A heavier car uses more fuel, while one that is more expensive to make cuts margins. It’s counter-intuitive. All the while, the car industry is one of the most competitive oligopoly markets an economic professor could theorise over. Oh yes, and we had an economic disaster recently.
But at last, 2016 is a year for colossal changes and the great thing is, the creativity of some of the best engineering minds are being allowed to run free a little bit. Things are on the up and genuinely exciting to those who only have a passing interest in expensive objects with 4 wheels. It is all relevant to marketing because the big challenge is getting across what these new innovations are, why they are beneficial and, crucially, why you must have one in your life, even if it requires a second mortgage.
Let’s start with a nice, easy to relate to, part of your car. The stereo. This is no longer just a stereo. Oh no, throw those compact discs away. Even now, audio playback from your phone isn’t standard fit on every model (I’m looking at you Audi), but things are moving forward for the better. Many new cars have some sort of touch-screen ‘infotainment’ system. They promise pinpoint satellite navigation, the ability to listen to your own music and all sorts of useful graphics to feed you information about your car. Unfortunately, the majority of these are terrible.
We are spoiled by our phone. If that has a responsive touch screen and slick operation, why can’t a £30,000 Jaguar do the same? Not being able to enter a destination using a postcode is a classic mistake by these systems, as are slow loading times, poor screens that can’t be seen in sunlight or software that doesn’t allow you to change the temperature without the navigation disappearing completely from the screen.
Thankfully, we are being saved by the phone manufacturers. Soon, most cars will have Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Simply plug your phone in and the in-car screen simply mirrors your device. Slick, easy and much better than iDrive (…BMW).
In the US, both are standard fit on most new cars, Europe should catch up this year, which was apparent at Geneva. Skoda even went through the trouble of erecting a giant fake touch screen phone on their stand to get the message across and have developed an in-car driving game app to entertain children on long journeys.
Even Bentley are in on the act. The new million dollar Mulsanne Grand Limousine has two Android tablets for rear passengers, fixed to the rear of the front headrests. Of course, they have a unique Bentley Android software skin so you can’t tell they are most likely cheap Huawei devices and they are bound in 6 cows worth of leather, darling.
Toyota had the best feature in my eyes, as the new Prius has built-in wireless phone charging. I placed my phone in the cubby hole and it charged. Amazing.
But more importantly, the biggest thing to take away from Geneva is that no one is sure what shall propel your car in the future. This is reliant on two things. The politics of oil and the marketing of new propulsion methods.
Each manufacturer has some sort of electric car in their stand. Mostly, they are concept cars. Something that is a one-off, that can’t be driven on roads, but looks cool and shouts “Hey, we are down with the kids and we care for the environment”. But, for the most part, they come across as awkward as if your dad put on a snapback and streamed the latest Bieber release.
The reason for this is that they can’t work out how to make them profitable. They want to be seen as cool and caring, but most don’t actually care, yet. One of the biggest crowds was of course, at the Tesla stand. Elon Musk’s eponymous electric car company is excellent at not acting like a car company. A breath of fresh air. They are the default car that comes to mind when you think electric. But these are premium vehicles. Or, in the words of BMW CEO Harald Kruger, “a nice prototype”. They are not a solution, yet.
There are plenty of more affordable electric cars however, such as the Mitsubishi i and the Nissan Leaf. The problem being that they are expensive in comparison to similar sized petrol/diesel cars and they look and feel like Zanussi washing machines. They are not desirable. Plus, we still have a very real mindset hurdle to overcome, range anxiety. Longer trips? Forget it.
What about Hybrids? Sure, they work well in city centres, but as soon as you exit the town streets, the petrol engine has to lug around the extra weight of the batteries and thus on a motorway, for example, they aren’t efficient at all. Hyundai launched their new Ioniq at the show and it perfectly sums up the marketing trouble. It’s available as all-electric, a plug-in hybrid or a full-hybrid. A “world first”, Hyundai boldly claimed. It simply struck me that they have no idea at all what consumers want, so just chucked the kitchen sink at it. Their big challenge is to get across the message one of those 3 propulsion options is an attractive solution. Good luck with that.
But, amongst the confusion, there were two cars hidden away in little corners of the show. These were the Toyota Mirai and the Honda Clarity. Neither are particularly attractive or cool. But it’s what is inside that counts. They are hydrogen powered.
Briefly, here is how they work. You visit a fuelling station that offers hydrogen. You fill them up like a normal car. Inside, there is a ‘Fuel Cell’. This turns that liquid hydrogen into electricity. This then powers the car. It performs just like an electric car, only instead of an 8-hour charge, you fill it up like your regular petrol car. Plus, the only emission out of the back is H20. Unlike regular electricity, you don’t need fossil fuels to produce the hydrogen either. Amazing.
Sadly, the majority of consumers do not know about this. They definitely do not want it. Which is a vicious cycle, because car manufacturers need to invest billions to make this become the norm. But they won’t do that if there isn’t demand.
Honda are predicting a massive, colossal, 10 sales for the Clarity by the end of 2017, 10 cars. That is not a business. So amongst all the SUVs, shiny new hypercars and wild concepts, the Geneva Motor Show helped us to find the future of the automobile. Now we need to get behind the idea and keep our fingers crossed that the industry helps promotes the technology to the wider audience. Hopefully this will happen in our lifetime. Here’s to hoping.