Key car show in Europe goes green

BMW’s new electric i4 on display at IAA Mobility in Munich earlier this month. PHOTO: NYTIMES

MUNICH (NYTIMES) - Before the pandemic, German car shows looked like this: Automakers competed to occupy the most floor space. Gleaming new models were unveiled to the accompaniment of cheesy light shows. Throngs of mostly male visitors ogled displays of the latest in horsepower and luxury from Wolfsburg, Munich and Stuttgart.

But the throngs had been thinning out even before the pandemic brought mass gatherings to a halt.

Europe's first major car show in two years, which opened in Munich recently, looks like this: The latest models are being exhibited in outdoor plazas rather than expensive pavilions. Serious discussions on topics such as autonomous driving have replaced light shows. And bicycles are on display. (Yes, bicycles.)

What used to be known as the Frankfurt International Motor Show has moved to Munich and been rebranded IAA Mobility. (IAA stands for Internationale Automobil Ausstellung, or International Automobile Exhibition.) All forms of transportation are now welcome, regardless of their propulsion methods.

The German Association of the Automotive Industry, which organises the show every two years, is responding to changes in technology as well as the increasing awareness among consumers that a car's throaty roar means it is spewing poisons into the air.

This is an awkward moment for the auto industry. Carmakers still make most of their profit from vehicles that run on petrol or diesel. But they are shifting almost all their money and energy to electric vehicles and autonomous driving software and struggling to redefine themselves to fit the new technology.

All five of the new vehicles that Mercedes-Benz unveiled at the show are battery-powered. Volkswagen, once known for parading new cars before auto journalists on a big stage with pounding music, did not display any vehicles.

Instead, Volkswagen offered a nerd fest. Reporters split into small groups for discussions with Volkswagen executives about autonomous driving, battery technology and the company's plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

In years past, Volkswagen wowed visitors with surprise appearances by stars such as Pink. This year, the celebrity guest was Mr Bryan Salesky, chief executive of Argo AI, an autonomous-driving company that is based in Pittsburgh and has partnerships with Volkswagen and Ford.

He and Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess stood at a chest-high table, microphones in hand, and discussed why it is so hard to make cars that can drive themselves.

"I think the world understands how complex this is," Mr Salesky said. "Our children will be working on it."

"Sustainability" was the buzzword.

BMW displayed a concept vehicle made entirely of recycled materials. But the carmakers still have work to do to convince everyone that they are serious about fighting climate change. Activists from Greenpeace held protests in front of the Volkswagen event and others, reminding people of the greenhouse gases released by most cars every day.

Although Ferrari and Lamborghini, icons of horsepower and machismo, had no exhibits at the show, an entire hall was devoted to bicycles and e-bikes, including brands such as Cannondale and Pegasus, as well as a pair of podlike, three-wheeled vehicles powered by pedals and small electric motors.

By moving displays of the latest vehicles to public plazas in Munich, organisers hoped to create a festival atmosphere and persuade a broader range of people to pay €20 (S$32) for a day ticket.

The jury is still out on whether the new format will reverse declines in attendance that have afflicted virtually all major car shows in recent years.

For industry insiders, who account for a big share of visitors, IAA Mobility also featured a Davos-like "summit" that included panel discussions with titles such as "Manage Your Electrified Fleet", "Decarbonising the Automotive Supply Chain" and "Challenge of the Christian Worldview in the Age of Digitalisation".

Mr Axel Schmidt, head of the automotive division at consulting firm Accenture, said he thought that a new format was overdue and that organisers were on the right track. But he was not sure whether it would work. "I don't know if this is the beginning of the end, or the beginning of a new era," he said.

The beginning of the end is a distinct possibility. Many of the vast exhibition halls at the Messe Munich, the city's fairgrounds, were vacant as companies such as Stellantis - the maker of Fiat, Peugeot and Jeep vehicles - declined to rent space.

Automakers had already been decoupling from industry exhibitions and looking for new ways to speak to potential buyers, and the pandemic accelerated the trend. Volkswagen's "Power Day" in March, when the company outlined its battery strategy for electric vehicles, attracted five million online viewers, including two million from China.

If there is any hope for car shows, it may come from the companies springing up to supply the growing number of electric cars.

One example is Wallbox, a Spanish company that makes chargers for homes and public charging stations that can fully recharge an electric car in 15 minutes.

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