When is a motor show not a motor show?

·5 min read
Cars on display
Cars on display

This week marks the beginning of Germany's biennial Internationale Automobil Austellung - or International Motor Show.

Traditionally, it is a chance for the country to parade the enduring strength of its own car industry, while welcoming the biggest brands from around the world.

But this year's event, held in the Bavarian city of Munich, promises to be very different.

And that is not just because it is taking place as the pandemic still rages and the car industry appears to be an increasingly-tempting target for politicians keen to show off their environmental credentials.

Changing gears

For a start, this year's show won't just be about cars. Organiser, the German Automotive Industry Association, insists the focus is instead being placed on 'climate neutral mobility'.

The city of Munich itself will open up roads and public spaces to allow visitors to try out new concepts in sustainable transport. And cycling brands such as Specialized, Scott and Canyon will take their place in the exhibition halls alongside the likes of Porsche and Mercedes.

Hildegard Mueller stands before a graphic showing electric powered cars, scooters and busses
Hildegard Mueller, president of the German Automotive Industry Association, says the main focus of the conference will be on the path to climate neutrality

When the Covid pandemic hit early last year, major international trade fairs such as the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and the Geneva International Motor Show were cancelled at short notice.

Such events, which brought together thousands of people from all around the world, were simply untenable during a period of lockdowns, closed borders and quarantine restrictions.

Munich is the first attempt to re-establish a high-profile motor show in Europe. Indeed, it is the first major international event in Germany since the country eased its lockdown restrictions.

But making a success of it won't be easy.

That's because even before the pandemic, the future of the traditional auto industry showcase was already hanging in the balance.

The last IAA was held in 2019. Back then, it was the Frankfurt Motor Show, an event held on a grand scale. Each of the three major German manufacturers had a giant pavilion pretty much to themselves. Further vast halls housed companies from across the globe - all with their no-expense-spared displays of four-wheeled fashion.

aerial view of the conference site
The conference site from above

But frankly, for anyone who attended, the event was a form of purgatory. The show was simply too big. It took 20 minutes simply to get from one end of the showground to the other. It was always hot, stuffy and very noisy - leaving attendees, like myself, with a thumping headache and impressive blisters.

But more importantly, it was becoming far too expensive. A large stand at any of the international auto shows costs millions - and many of the major manufacturers have decided it's not worth the money. Big name absences became commonplace, both at Frankfurt and at the Paris Motor Show.

By 2019, after an event that was - embarrassingly - disrupted by climate activists, the organisers decided it was time for a change. They ditched Frankfurt, which had hosted the show since the 1950s, and head to a new city. Munich, on the banks of the Isar river, was chosen - but then came Covid.

Running on empty

The pandemic wreaked havoc within a motor industry that was already grappling with huge change. Governments, especially those in Europe, have been setting ambitious deadlines for eliminating the sale of new petrol and diesel cars. Emissions limits have been cut right back, and manufacturers have been rushing to develop electric vehicles. At the same time, the pressure is on to make cars ever more connected, and ever more automated. And all of that comes at a hefty price.

Manufacturers were also facing mounting bills as a result of the pandemic. Initially, they were forced to close factories and dealerships; then disruptions to the supply chain made it hard to recover lost ground.

What is happening in Munich this week, then, is an attempt to reinvent the motor show itself, at a time when many within the industry are questioning whether such events are luxuries they can no longer afford.

"Put it this way", one executive recently told me, "if you've already set aside several million Euros to attend a show, then it's easy to get the board to sign off on it. But if that budget has been diverted elsewhere, it's very difficult to get it back".

As a result, in Munich, many of the World's largest carmakers will be conspicuous by their absence. There will be no General Motors, no Ford, no Toyota, and no Stellantis, which makes Peugeot, Citroen, Vauxhall, Fiat and Alfa Romeo vehicles, among others.

Instead, the line-up is dominated by the three big German makes, Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz and BMW. They'll be joined by Renault, Hyundai, the Chinese manufacturer Great Wall, and the luxury electric vehicle specialist Polestar.

But the organisers insist this is not a problem. The focus of the show has been changed dramatically, from a petrolhead's dream of the latest, sleekest and fastest four-wheeled machinery, to something designed to encompass all aspects of mobility - with tech companies, startups and bicycle manufacturers also being invited in.

"Mobility is one of society's foremost topics," explains Hildegard Mueller, the President of the German Automotive Industry Association

"People all over the world are seeking better solutions to their mobility needs. The main focus will be solutions on the path to climate neutrality".

But some things will not change. The manufacturers who are at the show are still planning to unveil plenty of new cars, though many of them will be electric; and we will still see plenty of futuristic 'concepts', fantasy cars created from the fevered imaginations of engineers given a licence to think big thoughts about the future.

But the thing we're likely to hear less of this time is the 'sharing economy'. A few years ago, auto industry executives were convinced that fewer and fewer people would be buying private cars. Shared-use models would be all the rage, with people only using cars when they needed them.

That idea hasn't wholly gone away - the rush to develop and commercialise self-driving taxis is still on, for example - but there's an acceptance too that the pandemic has made people aware that private transport does still retain some distinct advantages.

Individual mobility has suddenly become a lot more valuable.