To the hundreds of hacks gathered in Germany last week for the biannual Bosch Automotive press briefing it was a reminder of the good old days: the wine flowed, the buffet was sumptuous and most importantly, there was a never-ending parade of new technology to marvel at.
The event was a stark illustration of one of the current climate’s more curious characteristics: that while many parts of the manufacturing industry stare the unthinkable in the face, the pace of technology development across nearly all of the sectors is as rapid as ever.
Of course, buoyant R&D activity often belies the bottom line, and Bosch saw sales in its automotive technology drop by 6.9 per cent last year and predicts a drop of around 15 per cent this year
But without being flippant, its chairman Bernd Bohr managed to convey a sense that the downturn is a major irritation rather than an outright disaster : the talk was of “staying power”, “long term thinking”, and the shape of the automotive industry not next year, or the year after that, but in decades to come. The next generation of advanced driver assistance systems on show at the event backed up the conviction that when the dust settles people are going to want to continue buying luxury vehicles bristling with technology.
The event also drew attention to another symptom of the current crisis – the sense at least that the downturn may actually have helped galvanise the development of new technology. In recent months the concept of the electric vehicle (EV) has gathered momentum around the globe. While the push to develop new powertrain solutions is nothing new, it’s surely no coincidence that the technology is being pursued with renewed vigour by an industry desperate to find a way forward.
If memory serves us correctly, the same event four years ago barely touched on EVs, yet last week a large portion of Bohr’s opening address talked up their importance. Interestingly, mindful of the low energy density and low power density problems that bedevil current battery technology Bosch appears optimistic about the potential of so-called range extended vehicles, where a smaller combustion engine running in a constant mode is used to power the battery.
It was all an inspiring reminder of why R&D is so important: politicians come and go, financial markets crash and burn, but engineering remains one of the few areas of human endeavour that has anything like a truly practical eye on the medium and longer term future.
And while the UK doesn’t do quite as good an impression of being unflustered by the economic climate as the Germans, there’s every sign that our biggest engineering firms take R&D just as seriously. In a recent interview with The Engineer, Rolls Royce head of technology Ric Parker was similarly bullish over the importance of keeping R&D spend high. It is, of course, absolutely essential that this remains the case, because if technology companies stop investing in the future then they might as well pack up now.