What Frankfurt tells us about the car industry

Now that the dust has settled from all the new launches and announcements at the Frankfurt Motor Show, we can step back a little and take a look at what the automotive industry is up to.

The good news is that electrification is one of the themes of the show, spoken about by industry bosses in a large number of manufacturers’ press conferences, along with a number of concepts and new models featuring electric powertrains. The cars that have really grabbed the headlines are the Porsche Mission E (1), Audi e-tron quattro (2) and Mercedes-Benz Concept IAA (3) – two EVs and a PHEV – which isn't at all bad considering both Ferrari and Lamborghini unveiled convertible versions of their supercars in Frankfurt. A few years ago, the Italian exotica would be hogging the limelight, but now the models that have got the car world talking are plug-in vehicles. Granted, all three are concepts - though Audi has confirmed that the e-tron quattro will be made in 2018 - but the sign is that a number of important manufacturers are all focusing on electric cars.

If these automotive giants are developing electric cars with greater range – 310 miles (500km) is the new quoted benchmark – and more power, it is understandable if Tesla leaves Frankfurt with a bit of a persecution complex. It seems that everybody is looking at challenging the dominance the American manufacturer has on the high-end EV market. This should be seen by Tesla executives as a compliment though – they have been accepted as a genuine rival and are now being treated as such.

Frankfurt's electric stars

It is the Germans who are taking up the EV baton with the greatest gusto at the moment. BMW took four new PHEV models to Frankfurt and has plans to not only increase that number across its range, but also to step-up its pure-EV presence. BMW chairman Harald Kruger said: "We firmly believe that electric drivetrains are part of our industry’s future – battery-powered in urban settings and fuel cell for long distances. This is our approach – to make easy access to electro-mobility possible for everyone."

The VW Group has created a multi-pronged EV strategy, with its brands including Volkswagen, Porsche and Audi taking long-distance EV motoring and running with it. The Audi e-tron quattro is directly aimed at Tesla's forthcoming Model X SUV, while the Mission E would be a serious rival to Tesla's Model S saloon should it go into production – and it wouldn't be surprising if it did. It is no coincidence that both were quoted as having ranges of more than 300 miles, high levels of horsepower and rapid recharging times as these are all features that help make the Tesla Model S (4) so popular.

Aiming to lead the EV market within the next three years, the VW Group has announced that 20 more electric and PHEV models will be launched by 2020. Dr Martin Winterkorn, CEO of the Volkswagen Group, said at Frankfurt: "The electric car cannot be a compromise on wheels, it must convince customers in every respect." He went on to say that environmental compatibility and sustainability were becoming increasingly important to customers. "From the zero-emission city car, through the plug-in hybrid all-rounder to the three-litre sports saloon: It is our customers who decide for themselves just how much e-mobility they want." Winterkorn also said that electric-drive vehicles were a key building block for achieving ambitious climate targets, and that the plug-in hybrid had the greatest market potential.

Both BMW and the VW Group have a number of plug-in models on the market already (below) and are bringing electric car development back in line with what is normal in the automotive industry. Tech companies such as Google and Tesla have come in and made and developed cars as the computer industry would – bringing out small upgrades on a regular basis. The automotive industry works differently, with motorsport and luxury cars the traditional starting point for new technology before it filters down to cheaper models and becomes increasingly accessible. The VW Group is developing electric batteries and motors using its endurance racing programmes with Audi and Porsche, before bringing the technology into its road cars.

VW and BMW plug-in models

Because of the likes of the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe, EVs first became prominent as smaller cars, but this was almost a necessity because of the limitations of an emerging EV car market. Range was not particularly good and cars needed to be light to cope with the relative lack of power – attributes that suited smaller family cars.

Now though, we're seeing two ways of progressing. Smaller cars are being developed with increases in range and power, while luxury models are beginning to filter down technologies that have high power outputs and greater ranges – and therefore greater cost.

In a few years’ time, the two EV progressions will meet in the middle, with all classes of car having viable EV models in their ranges. When that happens, expect to see the established practice of top-to-bottom development that the automotive industry has used for decades return. This method will still be challenged by the working practices of tech companies but the automotive world is shifting to EVs rapidly enough to see off a huge increase in start-up automotive manufacturers in the same way that Tesla began.

Something conspicuous by its absence at Frankfurt was automated driving. There was very little to be seen in the way of driverless cars, with the only real mentions coming from technology firms such as Bosch rather than car manufacturers. Self-parking cars were the closest automated technology came to having a significant Frankfurt presence. For all the recent drum thumping of driverless cars only being a few years away, there was little on show at one of the biggest motor shows of the year to convince the public that that statement is true. Whether it is the traditional automotive manufacturers playing down the technology, or the legal and safety regulations limiting progression of driverless tech, we can't quite be sure. Surely though, Frankfurt would have been a good place to make a statement for those with an advanced driverless model as it is such a prestigious event on the calendar.

The final key piece of analysis to come from Frankfurt is that manufacturers are giving the public what they want. There were a huge number of SUVs and crossovers on show, with even the likes of Bentley (5) and Jaguar (6) bringing out 4x4 models that would never have been considered less than ten years ago. Crossover and SUV market shares are increasing all the time and manufacturers are responding by bringing out more and more models in these sectors.

People power at Frankfurt

Likewise, the public’s opinion is being taken seriously. The Toyota C-HR Concept (7) went to Frankfurt as just that, a concept. Toyota announced at the show though that a production model will be launched at next year's Geneva Motor Show since feedback had been so positive. Mazda (8) took a large SUV concept to Frankfurt and has said that it will build it if there is enough interest – a sentiment repeated by a number of other manufacturers.

Thankfully, despite the increase in SUVs, which are normally larger, heavier and generally less efficient than a similar conventional hatchback or estate, the electric powertrains theme was prevalent in these new models too. The likes of Nissan, Toyota, Audi and BMW all brought out plug-in SUVs showing that the larger the car, the greater the benefits of electrification in terms of emissions and fuel economy.

So this year’s Frankfurt show could prove to be a crucial turning point in the automotive industry, a time when car manufacturers publicly held on tightly to established industry practices and battled back against outside competition. A number of companies have declared their EV intentions and development routes, with very few manufacturers burying their head in the sand any more and making exciting plug-in vehicles that have really caught the public's imagination.

Take a look at our top ten Frankfurt Motor Show electric cars

Chris Lilly

Author:Chris Lilly
Date Updated:18th Sep 2015

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