The leviathan that is the global motor industry rolled into Frankfurt last week. A huge industrial circus that, on the surface, can be as insulated from global reality as it is representative of the motoring zeitgeist.
The Frankfurt Motor Show, or to give it its real title, the Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung, has a distinct atmosphere that, superficially at least, follows national stereotypes. Where the Geneva show is compact and moneyed, Turin flamboyant and showy, Frankfurt represents an efficient and business-oriented approach, where the key objective is to shift metal over a lively Riesling in the VIP areas. There were a few concept cars, a few discernible directions, but very few surprises. For the real influence and innovations, in the true spirit of German modernism, you have to look to the details.
Audi, whose cars represent an unusual alliance, for example, credibility with reliability, was showing a V8 twin-turbocharged 430 brake horsepower Avantissimo super-estate study. This vast bahnstormer of a car was notable not so much for its signature Audi styling, but for its consumer-led thinking. For instance, its huge 740mm diameter wheels carry tyres that
can be run on a flat for 200km at speeds up to 80kph, thereby effectively doing away with the need for a spare. Another feature is the remote controlled rear hatch slide-out floor tray, which means you can reach objects loaded right inside the car’s vast interior. Photovoltaic elements in the roof provide enough solar energy to drive the ventilation/ air conditioning when the car is at a standstill. These sorts of ideas will filter down into your hatchback sooner than you think.
Audi also showed, along with BMW and others, evidence of harnessing the increasingly vast amount of information in a modern car, where functions and transmitted data (e-mail, telephone, navigation and so on) require a complex interface solution that must make immediate sense to the driver – who, we shouldn’t forget, is also required to drive the car safely. For years in Japan, cars have had interface screens for navigation data and even TV, but up to now European legislation has prevented the display of too much data on on-board screens. However Audi’s MMI – multimedia interface – is a screen-based information centre and BMW’s 7 Series has a solution called I-drive, which is a hybrid of a joystick and a mouse, used to control menus and car functions, as well as receive information. All these systems require the driver to take his/ her eyes off the road and hand off the wheel to use them, which while possible, is still potentially dangerous and makes a mockery of ‘less is more’.
BMW’s cramped and claustrophobic show space was festooned with innovations that, apart from the usual array of uberengineering, were much more directed at the larger challenges we all face. Most interesting were three models that use hydrogen fuel cell power in one form or another – a hydrogen Mini, a 3 Series, and a hybrid fossil fuel/ hydrogen-powered 7 Series. Hydrogen is the daddy of clean fuel and is extracted from water, still a fairly abundant resource – especially in the UK. While the 7 Series styling is not the most visually cohesive design in the show, this version will at least appear on our roads within the lifespan of the model, offering the driver a choice of fuel source. This is important, as the main thing holding back hydrogen (or any alternative fuel source) is infrastructure.
Current legislation requires at least 200 centres to provide the fuel source before a car can be launched in Germany. So is it the consumer, the car companies or, in fact, governments that are holding back progress here? Gas guzzling behemoths like BMW are the cars to which alternative fuel technology should be applied first, as features at this level tend to filter down through the other car categories. Fuel sources like hydrogen are the long-term saviours of our personal mobility, independence and our planet, and it’s about time car companies forced the issue forward. The thought of no more fuel crises, less pollution and a cheap source of power is a heartwarming rather than a planet warming one, but don’t hold your breath.
These marques share another clean air obsession – they also produce bicycles. Of course, premium brands cannot be seen to build any old creaky vicars wheels; they have to be the over-engineered, overweight bullies of the bike world, demonstrating that car designers sometimes just don’t get subtlety or restraint.
Although the subject of a certain recent sporting success on the playing fields of Germany was respectfully avoided, the Jaguar stand exuded all the confidence and swagger of a renascent team playing well away. A rash of new cars in the past few seasons has given the marque an enviable line-up, but the weight of tradition still seems a burden, especially as the more youthful consumer is a Jaguar target. Until, that is, you come to the R-Coupe. A Jaguar study displays how a company can turn perceptions of pedigree and provenance into something dynamic and distinct. Ian Callum, director of design, and his team at Jaguar talk engagingly about totality and proportion, balance and presence, and you can see these values realised before you in the car itself. The frustration for both the designer and the consumer is that these cars, if they appear in production at all, will be shadows of the purity of the original idea.
Automobiles are a modern anomaly – like staring at a word for too long, eventually it all seems a bit odd. Unlike any other product, cars are the objects of our desire for personal freedom and mobility, but they remain fundamentally unchanged after a century and evolve at the speed of syrup. Year upon year, we are presented with another evolution, another iteration of this self-propelled metal box on wheels – but where are the real innovations? Motor shows are distinctly odd affairs too. Like all trade shows and showcases, they present decontexturalised, disjointed products, displayed in a vacuum of artifice. But, of course, like all these events, looking at cars is only part of the point.
The Mercedes ‘experience’ was by far the most incredible example of conspicuous consumption: an enormous three-storey circular amphitheatre of automation. Falling car sales in Europe and wobbly global and German economies seem at odds with the sheer chutzpah of metal and money on show here.
In contrast, how often at a trade show have you, as a tired and stressed visitor, been enticed into an enclosed installation, offered organic finger food, wheatgrass juice, soothing music and images; to walk and sit in a velvet womb-like room and be massaged by the lissome hands of a goddess? No, fatigue or alcohol hasn’t finally got the best of me, this was the Autostadt. The Autostadt is part of the Volkswagen stand (the DM850m (£275m) sponsors), designed by Weisbaden-based design group 3deluxe. It is a precis of the permanent venue in Wolfsburg, providing a refreshing and memorable alternative to the pressure of the mainstream car industry. The Autostadt in Wolfsburg is a stunningly successful mobility and automobile ‘atmosphere’ (2.9m visitors in two years), a centre of simulators, films, installations, food and indulgence. In fact, as far away from service station culture as it is possible to get.
There was also rash of ‘new’ cars from Ford (Fiesta), Fiat (Stilo), VW (Polo), Nissan (Primera), Honda (Jazz) and even Bugatti (Veyron16.4) and Lamborghini (Mercielago), but they were all about evolution rather than revolution. Honda showed the way with an intelligent, thinking-person’s car solution. The Civic Type R’s engineering is peerless, with true innovations like a flat floor for class-leading space efficiency, and an overall package that is a useful, raucous, fun, but subtle, modern incarnation of the Q-car. Meanwhile, Renault showed some of the most intense examples of strong styling with the Avantime and Vel Satis and the Talisman concept study, and whose stand was the multimedia extravaganza of the whole show.
The automotive industry has always had to balance the emotions and fantasies of cars and driving with the reality of fuel costs, legislation, safety and performance. And although the modern car only develops incrementally, the industry is a superb example of brand repositioning. I wonder though if today there are more challenges than ever before: the consumer is spoilt for choice in styling, price range and function, so where to go next? Maybe the industry needs to lift its focus and centres of influence beyond the studios in Tokyo, San Francisco, Munich and, why not, Coventry, to find the broader horizon of the real world on which most consumers can see more fundamental issues.
Andy Davey is principal at product design consultancy TKO