A new post-Covid world emerged in Munich this week, one where Germany’s biggest motor show is no longer just about cars. At least that’s the message.
This year’s IAA show, the first major motor industry event worldwide since the Covid-19 pandemic, wants to be about mobility in general, from bikes to e-scooters to cars.
The reality is a little different, as the big auto giants loomed large over the non-motoring minnows. As construction workers scrambled on Sunday to put up remaining exhibition booths ahead of the official opening on Tuesday, cars were clearly still the dominant feature. A lone e-bike tent was distinctly outnumbered by far larger, glitzier carmaker stands from Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Mini and others.
The show, which has shifted this year from Frankfurt to Munich and is themed “Mobility of the Future”, is a far cry from its usual format showcasing the biggest and mightiest cars on the market. The pandemic and growing concern over climate change have cast an uncomfortable shadow over the event.
Activists and environmental groups, too, point out that for all the talk of mobility and diversified transport, automakers still make the vast majority of their money from fossil-fuel emitting SUV sales.
"Adding 'mobility' to the event's name and pushing their e-models to the fore won't do the trick as long as they keep selling primarily gas-guzzling combustion engines," Marion Tiemann, transport expert for Greenpeace in Germany, said, branding the event a "greenwashing bonanza".
Indeed, many industry stalwarts have decided against showing up: Toyota, Jaguar's Land Rover, Stellantis – including its German brand Opel – and Ferrari, to name a few.
Those who did attend were pitching zero- or low-emission vehicles with executives eager to talk up plans for a carbon neutral future.
But car makers are facing a more immediate crisis due to the ongoing semiconductor shortage, which has cast a long shadow over the auto industry since before the pandemic began. Forced to shut down plants last year, carmakers now face increasing competition from the consumer electronics industry for chip deliveries. That problem has been compounded by a series of supply chain disruptions during the pandemic.
Speaking at the show, Ola Kallenius, chief executive of Mercedes-Benz owner Daimler, said that while the company is hopeful its own supply will improve in the fourth quarter, soaring demand for chips means the industry could struggle to source enough of them into 2023.
Renault chief executive Luca De Meo said the chip shortage had been tougher than expected during the current third quarter, but said the situation should improve in the fourth quarter.
BMW chief executive Oliver Zipse said the premium carmaker expects supply chains to remain tight well into 2022. "I expect that the general tightness of the supply chains will continue in the next six to 12 months," he said.
This global problem has started to impact on Irish forecourts. Speaking on Monday at the Irish launch of the new Renault Arkana, Paddy Magee, country operations manager for Renault Ireland said: "There's just such a lack of supply across the board now." The chip shortage will be what defines the size of the new car market this year, he said.
Mr Magee gave an example of the shortages experienced by the French brand's operations in Ireland at present. "One of our best-selling models, the Clio; we have only two of them in the country unsold and we haven't had [new deliveries of them] since July, so it is a big problem that we wouldn't have anticipated would have gone on for so long," said Magee.
“We are manoeuvring our way through it and our performance in Ireland will help us, but it’s a battle. It’s particularly hard on LCVs (vans). I think we are going to be plotting and planning our way through it for at least the next six months.”
Cars have become increasingly dependent on chips – for everything from computer management of engines for better fuel economy to driver-assistance features such as emergency braking.
For all the focus on climate change and chips, there were a few new cars unveiled at the show. First up is a new all-electric version the popular Megane. Arriving in Ireland next year, the Megane E-Tech comes with a 60kWh battery that will give it a range of 467km on a full charge, putting it in direct competition with the likes of the VW ID.3.
Fully electric small car
Over at VW, the German car giant unveiled a concept car that is set for production. The ID Life is a fully electric small car to be launched in 2025 at a cost of about €20,000 in Germany.
Similar in size to Volkswagen's Polo, the ID Life will be built by the company's Seat division and is based on the car giant's dedicated EV platform, a VW spokesman said.
Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz, promising to only develop new electric models from 2025, showcased the new EQE, an all-electric version of its big-selling E-Class saloon. The EQE’s battery has a 90kWh capacity, which on a full charge will give you a range of up to 660km says Mercedes.
On top of that, the EQE can be recharged at speeds of up to 170kW from a high-power DC charger. That allows you to add as much as 250km for every 15-minutes spent on a public charging point.
While base models will come with a relatively simple dashboard, higher-spec versions will get the enormous 1.4-metre width MBUX Hyperscreen electronic dashboard. This stretches from one side of the cabin to the other, with the round air vents as little islands in an apparently unbroken stretch of screen.
Which brings us back to the increasing demand for semiconductor chips on cars designed to tackle the growing concerns over climate change.
In the face of these challenges, car executives sought shelter in the comfort of futuristic concept cars and promises of a new age of self-driving vehicles.
Volkswagen head Herbert Diess said autonomous cars, not electric vehicles, were the “real gamechanger” for the auto industry. “Autonomous driving is really going to change our industry like nothing else before,” he said, adding the shift towards electrified cars was “kind of easy” in comparison. “The real gamechanger is software and autonomous driving.”
The only certainty is that the auto industry will undergo a greater revolution than it has in the last century
Over at BMW, they were imagining what a small family car would look like in 2040 – and letting their imagination run wild.
While the Circular’s dramatic styling are interesting, the more interesting parts of the car are what it’s made of: recycled material. BMW reckons that, across the board, its cars currently have around a 30 per cent content of recycled material. The plan is to ramp that recycled content up to 50 per cent. However, the i-Vision Circular concept car is made of 100 per cent recycled materials. Even the tyres are made from certified, sustainably cultivated natural rubber.
For the controls, BMW has come up with the rather cringing portmanteau of “phygital” – which is supposed to mix the common-sense of physical controls with the versatility of digital ones. In the cabin, there’s a V-shaped 3D-printed, “crystal body with nerve-like structures running through it.”
BMW sees this as the car’s brain, so to speak, and it’s held in place with naturally treated, sustainably-sourced wood. There is no instrument panel nor infotainment screen – instead, all of that is projected onto the lower half of the windscreen, all the way across the width of the cabin.
By using the windscreen as a projection surface, BMW says it’s eliminating the need for extra touchscreens in the car. You can control it all via touchpads on the steering wheel, or by connecting your phone or tablet to the car’s system. That steering wheel, incidentally, is also 3D-printed, and made from “bio-based” material.
Finally, there’s the noise. BMW has been working with famed Hollywood music composer Hans Zimmer to create audible effects for its otherwise-silent electric cars, and he – along with BMW’s own head of sound engineering Renzo Vitale – has come up with an e-car noise for the i-Vision Circular that’s meant to “makes its circularity audible”.
Just how pie-in-the-sky all of this is remains to be seen over the next 19 years, during which the only certainty is that the auto industry will undergo a greater revolution than it has in the last century. – Additional reporting: Reuters