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By Andrew Marsh

Occasionally we are aware that events happening around us are of historic significance – the classic ‘where were you when…?’. This year the automotive industry has been in the spotlight, from closing many established plants, through loan mis-selling and tail pipe emissions. The IAA motor show held once every two years in Frankfurt stands out as the place to see what technology is going to be seen in the next two years, or more.

On the eve of the show the organisers (VDA) issued a statement. It said events had made this show pivotal as consumers and governments alike around the world have come to distrust much of the output from the automotive industry. This was the moment. This was the platform and the time to show the entire world that the days of dodgy sales people working out of huge glass fronted dealerships would come to an end. The day the automotive industry showed it was interested in more than the next sale.

First up

By tradition Daimler hold the first press conference and also occupy the prestigious Festival Hall, built in 1909. It took R15 million, one month, two giant escalators and the construction of three floors to turn this hall into a temple to worship Daimler. Even the executive lift was borrowed for the display – yes, the dot matrix display panels are more than four floors (normal) high! The press, dealers and more gathered. Cheesy oompah-band-meets-sampling group set the scene with annoyingly happy music, and then. Lights. Camera. Action?

Dr Dieter Zetsche arrives on stage with sneakers, jeans and casual jacket. Yes, this is dress down style for those on circa €7.6 million per year. Then the ‘messages’ start. The opener? Well, I went weak at the knees. Following the new powertrains and bumpers on the facelifted S class saloon, the coupe and cabriolet got new – yes, new – bumpers!

But there’s more. The F-Cell GLC is going into production with an enhanced pilot phase (?) which translates to no, unlike a Toyota Mirai, you can’t actually order one just yet. However, the quality of the tooling and the definition of the layout confirmed that this really is a production vehicle. Even down to the tubular framework to manage front end impact energy in the centre tunnel where there’s one of the hydrogen fuel storage tanks. The point? This was the next stage in the ‘EQ’ brand launch, fusing E-Cell with F-Cell as well as hybrid drive. Like BMW iPerformance. Except BMW sell real cars right now.

Then came the finale. A 1 020 bhp coupe using current F1 technology, driven on to the stage with Lord Lewis Hamilton of Stevenage. He got out and met Dr Dieter Zetsche, with the similar expensive-yet-casual attire. Oh, by the way, F1 is changing the powertrain rules for 2019, so the ‘technology’ on show is actually F1 scrap. Is this the ultimate re-cycled car? Mercedes-AMG Project One is due in 2020 at a price of around €2 250 000…..

Dear Daimler, what was the relevance of this? Do you think the target market is single people with an income greater than €100 000 per year who are only fixated on going to concerts, shopping and meeting friends whilst not actually doing any form of work? Gosh, this is so disconnected it defies logic.

The disgrace continues

Overall the automotive industry is in free fall. Unable to reflect the serious nature of the research they do, or the capability they have to mass produce transport, it reacts. The IAA 2017 was brimming with ‘concepts’, with some OEMs showing up to four at once.

Take BMW. The X7 iPerformance concept is the production version of the ultimate BMW semi-off road barge. Long promised, with it’s sun eclipsing bulk, aimed squarely at the China market. Similarly, the Z4 concept is the last convertible for some time, since it narrowly avoided the axe. Both vehicles will roll out during 2018, along with the 8 series coupe which will be followed in due course with the 8 series cabriolet. 6 series? Somewhat dead due to lack of sales apart from the re-tooled 5 series GT which becomes the 6 series GT. Quite simply the 4 series had taken much of the market that 6 series of old used to have. Confused? Just imagine how the engineering teams feel.

Note the revolutionary approach to vehicle ownership, the ability to rebuild major areas of the vehicle within one working day, the elimination of tail pipe emissions. You missed that? Most of the automotive industry did too. Shifting metal is the priority.

The jewel in the crown

Team Germany is the leader of automotive trends. Daimler of old did things – put things on sale – which were up to 10 years ahead of trend. In the automotive world one has three finishing schools. China for commerce, the US as the birth place of mass production and Germany/Europe as the place to learn incredibly high standards of engineering. A place where someone can make door hinges, for example, like nowhere else.

IAA 2017 has a sacred place. The handful of halls where major Tier 1 suppliers show their latest technology which they have already sold to at least one OEM, or are about to. This year had an interesting aspect. On the days given exclusively for the press China held a high level trade delegate visit to the show, specifically to view these Tier 1 stands. Except no one knew until the event was underway, when we were unceremoniously shoved off the stands as a gaggle of smartly dressed Government officials and attendant translators approached.

The story? Germany is an established economy with historically unsustainable labour rates, using the Euro to offset it’s true currency strength and thus be more competitive that it would be in an open market. China is the powerhouse that will consume all before it. Remember the trio of automotive finishing schools? That’s the real story. China see’s the capability of key industrial producers as pivotal to their own long term success, and so seek to build relationships with those companies in the name of technology transfer. The companies in turn see this as a massive business opportunity, which in many cases has been fruitful for decades already.

Strangely, this was not reported.

What were the highlights? ZF (who bought out TRW) and Bosch showed the next generation of sensors as part of a networked array. These included solid state LiDAR, thrapple CMOS camera modules and more. The holy grail? More sensors on the front, side and rear of vehicles, following the phased mandatory fitment of autobraking and in preparation for autonomous vehicles towards the middle of the next decade.

There were endless displays of electric drive modules, energy storage modules and more. Oddly the press avoided this area, concentrating on all those super pretty ‘concepts’ instead. As an example, whilst the Honda NSX is not new, it has only just reached the market. Within 5m of a ‘prototype’ CR-V with a Li-Ion battery powered hybrid drive system – which was the innovation compared to the present Honda hybrid drive system – was a fully sectioned NSX.

An expensive four-wheel drive super car that missed its start of production dead line by two years? No, it’s a glimpse of just how complex the power electronics are going to get in the very near future. Why? Because adding low-level hybrid drive eliminates the majority of tail pipe emissions be using electric drive for primary acceleration, given that not one aspect of the energy used to create or give energy to the hybrid drive counts towards the CO2 output of a vehicle at the moment.

Patterns dah-ling, patterns…

The VWG platform juggernaut continues to roll out. MQB was launched way back in 2011, and yet the second smallest segment (Polo/Ibiza/Fabia/A1) has only just adopted MQB with Seat Ibiza and then Polo VI. Meanwhile the MQB story is moving through the all important small SUV market:

– Volkswagen T-Roc will be positioned below the Tiguan during 2018. The hardware appeared first as the Audi Q2 in 2016, and will be joined by the Seat/Skoda versions in the near future).

– Tiguan sisters have been added – the Seat Arona and the Skoda Karoq – which go on sale at the end of 2017. We await the new Audi Q3, which has yet to be revealed.

– The addition of extended Tiguan as a 7-seater in 2017 (known as Tiguan Allspace, or the ‘Atlas’ with a revised skin for the US) as a sister to the Skoda Kodiaq.

The large platform, MSB/MLB Evo, had four product reveals. The first was the new Panamera revealed at Geneva 2017, but this was followed by Audi A8 (D5), Bentley Continental GT Coupe III and the Porsche Cayenne. The Panamera and A8 have started production in 2017, whilst the other vehicles will go on sale in 2018. A key aspect is the body architecture available in a variety of metal combinations, and those combinations are optimised for each brand. The layout is identical, but the details of material selection and thus joining remains model specific. The latter three products had a combination of virtual and dedicated launches through the summer, so this was the first time they had been shown in public.

In each case the drivelines, electric/electronic architecture and key aspects of the body structure are shared across the respective platforms. VWG is not the first to do this – that credit goes to Fiat way back in the late 1960s – but the process sets the scene for the next revolution. Audi A8 (D5) for example has a 48V electric system as standard on all models, which is a full 18 years late, but the first car to do so. Others will follow, and rapidly, thanks to the push to reduce real world emissions form internal combustion engines. Similarly, this logic applies to almost every single aspect of vehicle construction.

Know the pattern, and understand the potential efficiency savings for repair in terms of equipment investment as well as training.

The finale

There were many new vehicle launches, but the majority were derivatives of existing vehicles or kite-flying with concepts to keep interest in the brands alive because there was nothing new. Nothing new. That really was the mantra of the show.

The automotive industry had a chance to use what motor shows are good at – presenting lots of news in a very concentrated burst – by uniting. They didn’t. Instead they chose to kick tyres on the used car lot in the hope they could shift metal. This is a dis-service to the public and to the huge number of talented people who work for or with the OEMs.

The automotive industry needs to prepare for either a major change of business model or face extinction. Wearing expensive yet casual clothes whilst putting the corporate head in the sand is not an option.