Auto industry shows appetite for change

Editor

The announcements from this year’s Geneva motor show are a reminder that industry’s doors are well and truly open to developers of disruptive technology

From a technology perspective The Geneva Motorshow, which opened its doors to the press earlier this week, tends to be one the most interesting of the big automotive jamborees.

And this year is no exception. Alongside the trumpeted launch of new supercars like the Ferrari 488 GTB and Mclaren’s 675 LT, the show has also provided a platform for a host of alternatively-powered, wirelessly connected vehicles that provide a useful insight into industry’s direction of travel.

So far we’ve seen the European debut of Honda’s hydrogen fuel cell-powered FCV Concept which is scheduled to go on sale next year; the electric version of Audi’s R8 supercar, and the stunning Koenigsegg Regera hybrid, which combines a combustion engine with an electric drive system. Visitors have even been treated to the bizarre sight of a car with a periscope courtesy of eccentric Swiss concept car developer Rinspeed.

Up periscope: Rinspeed's Budii concept car has an unusual way of checking out the traffic conditions
Up periscope: Rinspeed’s Budii concept car has an unusual way of checking out the traffic conditions

There’s also been some intriguing news from Nissan and Spanish utility company Endesa, who have announced that they will be working together on the development of a mass market vehicle to grid system, a concept that would enable EV owners to charge their vehicles at low demand periods, use electricity stored in the battery when costs are higher, and even potentially feed electricity back into the grid.

But whilst it’s all interesting stuff, what’s perhaps been most striking this year is not the technology itself, but the reaction to it.

Whilst not so long ago, each new electrically powered vehicle was greeted with a fanfare of surprise, alternative technologies have now become so commonplace that industry barely raises an eyebrow.

Even the rumours that Apple and Google are poised to establish themselves as carmakers have failed to ruffle as many feathers as they once would, with some report claiming that rather than feeling threatened, the bosses of the big car companies are positively excited about the imminent arrival of these “disruptive interlopers”.

The Koenigsegg Regera was one of a number of high performance hybrids unveiled in Geneva
The Koenigsegg Regera was one of a number of high performance hybrids unveiled in Geneva

It’s an interesting measure of how much the automotive industry – traditionally one of the most conservative of sectors – has changed in recent years, and a reminder that there has perhaps never been a better time for the developers of new automotive technologies.

This point was brought home to me at the recent launch of the Proving Factory – a new facility based in Coventry aimed at helping developers of innovative automotive propulsion systems scale-up and become part of the UK automotive supply chain. 

It’s a hugely welcome initiative, aimed at extracting maximum value from the UK’s technology base.  And the high number of very senior executives supporting the launch, and browsing the array of disruptive technology on display, was a clear sign of just how welcome it is to the automotive industry. As one technology developer remarked, hybridisation has almost taken the industry by surprise: ‘They’re all petrol heads,’ he said, ‘and there’s a once in a lifetime pull for technology that hasn’t existed for decades.’

This is great news for the UK’s many innovative technology developers. The big challenge now – for the wider economy – is making the most of this opportunity by doing more than simply generating good ideas, but ensuring that the companies behind these technologies have the opportunity to grow, profit from their expertise, and settle into their deserved position as the stars of tomorrow’s supply chain.

Look out for the next issue of The Engineer for an in-depth report on The Proving Factory