Geneva motor show review: the industry transforms
After the horror of Geneva 2009 and the mild recovery of 2010, Geneva 2011 felt more like business as usual. Generally confident manufacturers were introducing new models and talking about exciting new technologies.
A traditionally conservative industry is showing a new willingness to look at everything afresh.
Take something as simple as car doors. It has been assumed for decades that you cannot meet crash regulations in a four or five door car without a pillar (called the B-pillar in the business) between the doors.
Then Ford unveils the B-Max which has no pillar, and doors that open independently of each other (the bit the otherwise clever Mazda RX-8 could not manage). That took a huge amount of engineering, but Ford thinks it is worth it to create an easier-to-access cabin.
At the other extreme, Rolls Royce showed a battery electric Phantom which is the first manufacturer prototype to use inductive charging. There are no cables - charging comes from a magnetic field that only needs the car to be within 25 cm of the charging pad.
Within those extremes, there was less hype about green technology, but only because car manufacturers are getting down to the hard work of actually delivering it. As well as the Nissan Leaf going on sale as the show opened, lots of near-production electric cars were shown from nearly all the mainstream manufacturers.
People are not going to be short of choice in a couple of years: there will be fully electric cars, range extended hybrids, plug-in hybrids as well as current hybrids and conventional engines.
Geneva 2011 marked the point at which promises of radical new technology started to become reality. The next decade is going to be the most exciting in the history of the car. Many new technologies are going to be fighting for supremacy and no-one yet knows which ones will triumph. One thing is for sure: anyone who still thinks all cars are going to be the same is in for a shock. Today, it does not really matter if you buy, say, an Astra over a Megane.
In five years' time, a buyer really could make a big mistake if they buy an electric vehicle when only a range-extender hybrid would give them a big enough range. Cars are going to be much more efficient, but buyers are going to have to be better informed. There is going to be a real danger of buying the Sony Betamax car – or indeed being the last person to buy a VCR when everyone else has moved to hard disk recorders.
People might start to get nostalgic for the time when most cars were pretty similar – but that is the inevitable downside of progress.