THE PARIS MOTORSHOW: TODAY, TOMORROW AND BEYOND
In this article, AutoMate’s Harrison Boudakin takes a look at some of the key industry trends to emerge from the 2018 Paris Motor Show
In the automotive history books, 2018 will undoubtedly go down as yet another significant footstep in the industry’s long stagger towards a post-combustion future.
Thanks to a swirling combination of political, legislative and consumer factors, this year has so far not been a comfortable one for the automotive establishment, with almost every legacy brand being buffeted by the challenge of interpreting the future to the present market – a costly process requiring careful hedging against unsteady treads, and heavy investment in uncertain technologies.
Like any business, the auto-sector largely detests instability. Rather than craving the disruptive, in truth most automakers subscribe to Karl Popper’s theory of “piecemeal” engineering, the practice of small measures. Turn a screw here, open a valve there, but whatever you do make sure not to rush the change.
But the forces of change are mounting. Across the world – particularly in Europe and in China – regulators are moving to sanction some increasingly-strong “big-stick” measures that seek to quicken the uptake of alternatively-fuelled vehicles and drive consumers further away from full-combustion engines, particularly diesel.
So how is the industry to respond?
Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, they are unable to ignore regulators driving new levels of hybridisation and electrification, with the EU for example setting a benchmark of 15 percent of all sales to be either electric or plug-in hybrid by 2025, rising to 30 percent by 2030.
These proposals will allegedly bring about a reduction in fleet average emissions by 30 percent from 2021 – but the climb to reach the benchmark will be steep and expensive for automakers. Not only is the technology outside their traditional “centres” of engineering gravity and influence, there is also the simple fact that right now the market uptake of electrically-chargeable vehicles is low, and this is not due to a lack of availability or choice.
Rather, affordability, market conservatism and the overarching issue of practicality (tied into the question of charging infrastructure) are the predominant boat anchors for semi- and full-EV take-up. Demand for these vehicles did increase during 2018, with some European countries seeing 20-25 percent gains in sales volume across the first half of the year, and similar figures expected going forward. But given that they still represent only about one in 25 registrations globally, and even less in Australia, there’s still a long way to go before electrically-charged cars are standard household fare.
As a result, the industry appears to be settling itself into a tri-pronged approach. First, they need to continue to invest in current, legacy models to cater for the ‘today’. Second, they need to introduce ‘halfway-house’, semi-electrified versions of these mainstream vehicles to cater for the impending ‘tomorrow’. And finally, they need to front-load a heavy dose of capital into future, fully-electrified, and ultimately more radical vehicle concepts, to cater for the inevitable ‘beyond.’
None of this is cheap, and it’s undoubtedly confusing for consumers and those of us tasked with preparing to work on these vehicles one day.
On the plus side, however, we are being treated to a remarkably interesting and eclectic array of new models, concepts, designs and technology – a fact that was made very obvious at the recent Paris Motor Show.
Switching bi-annually between the French capital and Frankfurt, this event provides a chance for some of the world’s most important automakers to showcase their latest innovations and important cars (even amidst the regular murmurings about the “death of the motorshow”).
Perhaps the most important and potentially influential ‘legacy’ model to launch in Paris was the new-generation of BMW’s iconic 3 Series sedan – a car that manages at once to showcase BMW’s confidence in its old strengths and its patent potential weaknesses as it looks to the future.
Glancing at the 3 Series reveals an evolutionary design that perhaps does not go quite far enough to silence suspicions about BMW’s capacity to break their old design moulds at all, but even so the company is making bold claims about the car they say represents “the heart and soul of the company”.
The trouble is, BMW knows that the arteries feeding that heart are slowly turning sclerotic, as the sports sedan market has increasingly ceded ground to the SUV market and – in recent years – electric drives.
Don’t believe it? Well, here’s a fact for you: Tesla’s Model 3 is now out-selling BMW’s most famous model in the United States. So although BMW claims the new 3 Series is a “game-changer”, alongside the innovative Californian, Bavaria’s stalwart looks more like a “game-extender”. Or to put it another way, this was the headline act for the ‘today’ crowd of vehicle launches.
A little more daring, but still reassuringly familiar, was Mercedes’ new GLE sports utility vehicle. Sporting a handsome if unexceptional new body style, underneath the new GLE does represent Benz taking a bold half-step towards tomorrow’s tech.
Included in the line-up will be two highly-sophisticated six-cylinder motors featuring 48-volt mild hybridisation for silent step-off, high-speed ICE de-coupling (or ‘sailing’, as Merc calls it), and instant torque-fill via an electric turbo.
These models will essentially step up to the plate in markets where demand for the previously very-popular diesel models is declining. There’ll also be a true long-range plug-in hybrid version arriving shortly, offering drivers more than 100km of EV-only driving and thus making it ideal for use in cities where combustion-engine-vehicle access may soon be limited. ‘Half-steps’ they may be, but cars like the GLE plug-in are likely to become an increasingly-common sight on our roads in the next decade.
And finally, representing the ‘very futuristic’ camp, there was Audi’s e-tron quattro: the German marque’s all-electric SUV designed to tackle the Jaguar I-Pace and Mercedes-Benz EQ C head on. Expensive, heavy and still compromised by limited charging infrastructure in a country like Australia, the e-tron is not a car for the many.
Instead, this is proof that at the pointy end of the market, automakers are ready to spearfish the early adopters and build up some real EV credibility. And the stats are hugely impressive: with two electric motors producing over 300kw, the e-tron is capable of whisking itself to over 200km/h and sailing right along the freeway for more than 400km on a single charge. Unlike the more radically-styled Jaguar, though, the Audi is far more conservatively-styled, proving that when it comes to picking the approach for tomorrow’s automobiles, there’s far from consensus on so many fundamental questions.
What is clear, though, is that this year’s Paris Motor Show was perhaps as good an indicator as any of the complex task automakers face, as they attempt to link their evolutionary pasts with the massive technological shift already in play across the industry. Chasing the future while keeping at least one foot firmly planted in the present will be challenging, but on that challenge rests the ability for today’s automotive industry to survive and thrive tomorrow.
Written by Harrison Boudakin for AutoMate Training, an industry leading provider of online, on-demand digital training.
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