If one last proof was needed that the German auto industry really wants to do everything completely different now, then it is this, well, airy demonstration. In the coming week, the International Motor Show, better known as the IAA, begins in Munich. And the Association of German Automobile Manufacturers, the VDA, has invited the reporters to a preview – but not by bus or in an electric car convoy, but by zeppelin.
At a height of 500 meters you will glide gently over Munich and see how what is probably the most important German trade fair has changed. The IAA no longer only takes place in exhibition halls, but also right in the middle of the old town: at Königsplatz, for example, at Odeonsplatz, at Stachus or Marienplatz and also on the A 94 autobahn where people can try out futuristic vehicles.
In the past, the bigger the better
The change of perspective is necessary. Everything used to be clear, the rule of thumb was: the bigger, the better. Business is still running according to these rules – extremely well in fact, following current sales and profit figures. But in times of lightning-fast computers, threatening climate change and overcrowded cities, the managers in Wolfsburg, Munich and Stuttgart are increasingly discussing other things, sometimes with an anxious tone: Which robot car will come from the USA tomorrow? Which new competitor is behind the corner in China? What new forms of transportation are in demand? How green do you have to get? And yes, that too: How desirable are you actually?
When the industry gathered for the last time at the IAA, in autumn 2019, there was already a lot in the automotive world that had been considered a certainty for so long. And the car people hardly had any answers. This is one of the reasons why the IAA 2019 in Frankfurt turned out to be quite a disaster – which is not an exaggeration – that should not be repeated.
When the Chancellor visited, climate activists grimly climbed some cars and held up posters: “Climate killers”. The BMW employees stood around their occupied cars, perplexed. The dented roofs were the smallest problem. The managers simply didn’t know how to deal with this situation, for which there is probably no good solution. Halligalli was also outside the gates: demonstrators blocked the driveway with bicycles. Which, by the way, was quite right for the mayor of Frankfurt, Peter Feldmann. The SPD man – after all, actually the host – was not allowed to speak at the opening. His speech was then of course known anyway: “Frankfurt needs more buses and trains, but not more SUVs,” it said. And he also thanked the demonstrators – their fight for a better climate is important.
From then on, the disturbed car people only wanted to get away from Frankfurt. Eventually they agreed on Munich. Here, too, urban society does not embrace the auto industry. But it is probably the safest big city in the world, a main argument when looking for a new venue. “There are cavalry squadrons here and, if in doubt, a stable police cauldron,” said someone from the industry who was involved in the decision-making process some time ago. But that alone is not enough to make the trade fair a success again.
Because the car itself has lost traction. In Frankfurt there were only a good 500,000 visitors. Half as many as a few years earlier. Even in this area of life, providers and consumers have migrated to the Internet. And the avant-garde is somewhere else anyway: Google, Apple and Tesla are leaders in robot functions and electromobility – and what are the Chinese actually building with massive state support? Hardly any of this could be seen in Frankfurt.
The big trade fairs were long regarded as high masses: the car show in Geneva or Paris, the motor show in Detroit – or the IAA in Frankfurt, that was glamor in all its facets. Whoever could went there. The others at least devoured the reports and photos about horsepower cars and the scantily clad young women that manufacturers like Ferrari put on hoods, which they thought was creative.
It was the time when car managers huddled around the competition’s exhibition halls, sometimes more, sometimes less, to see what their colleagues were up to. When they met in the back rooms of the pavilions to make deals and start mergers. When men like the former Daimler boss Dieter Zetsche and the long-time Renault-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn sat on the big stage, talking about cars, marriages and all sorts of other things and the audience wondered whether it would be more of a cabaret . Ghosn later got into trouble with the Japanese judiciary and at some point fled to Lebanon in an instrument case. The perfectly staged drama was often behind the big cars.
The VW family owners made the managers act like gladiators in the Coliseum
In all these years, however, nobody had managed the ennobling of the car as well as Volkswagen. On the eve of the official car show openings, the Wolfsburg always invited people to a large hall, in Frankfurt, in Paris, in Geneva, regardless of the main thing: big. When every brand boss then presented his latest models in front of the big players, the music came off the tape at discotheque volume, when the bosses of Porsche, Audi and Skoda bowed to the powerful, the family owners Wolfgang Porsche and above all Ferdinand Piëch, then this pulled Roman Colosseum flair: Ave, Caesar, morituri te salutant.
It was loud on those evenings in the VW Coliseum, very loud. Sometimes they kicked Pet Shop Boys up, sometimes the French film diva Catherine Deneuve, sometimes rope artists and dancers. Each act was kind of out of place in its own way. But these evenings weren’t about the total work of art being convincing. The names were important. The celebrities. And the volume. When the twelve cylinders of the Lamborghini Aventador also cracked to the pounding techno music, to light shows and artificial fog, then you wondered how – for example – Mr Piëch, who was already older at the time, could stand it. Mostly he sat there, stoic, immobile, absent.
As soon as the show was over and the gladiators bowed to him, the emperor stood up and left the stands. Walked slowly down the stairs into the arena. Pretended to be inspecting cars, but the truth was he wanted to speak to the people, and so he did. Often only a few minutes, but that provided a topic of conversation for days. For example, when he said between half sentences that he would like to buy the Fiat subsidiary Alfa Romeo. Just like that, maybe also to drive the then Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne to white heat. Incidentally, he took revenge a few years later. When the Germans sank into the diesel scandal and Fiat was accused of having also manipulated diesel engines, the Italian said: “Anyone who compares us with the German company has smoked something illegal.”
The “i Vision Circular” should consist of almost 100 percent recycled material
Perhaps the diesel scandal was the beginning of the end of the big trade fairs, in any case it accelerated change. As a result of the crisis, the supposedly oversized people were cut back to normal. At the same time, new competitors with new technologies pushed into the industry. Then Piëch and his top managers disappeared from the scene. And the new managers also break the rules of professional ethics. At the IAA 2019 VW boss Herbert Diess tried the hugging technique with the demonstrators, he went almost completely out to the people, discussed with an activist of the “Sand in the Gears” initiative. That was a bit obnoxious on his part, but at least he had tried it.
Well, Munich. They want to appear more modern here and everything should run more smoothly, the industry hopes. And other content has been agreed. Above all, visitors can see electric cars, such as a stretchable sedan from Audi. And BMW wants to talk about the circular economy in its “Joytopia”: How can mobility work in a resource-saving and low-CO₂ manner? The company wants to present the “i Vision Circular”, a vision vehicle that consists of almost 100 percent recycled material – and is designed in such a way that it can be easily recycled. VW, in turn, would like to introduce the “New Auto”, the robot driving of the day after tomorrow. “Mobility is a basic human need – and fulfilling it in all its facets is an ever greater challenge for our society, which business and politics have to face,” says VDA President Hildegard Müller and is certain that the “new IAA “Will show ways how these mobility tasks can be combined:” efficiently, economically, socially and ecologically “.
It should be possible to experience it in the literal sense of the word, which is why the IAA no longer takes place in noisy, stuffy exhibition halls for the most part. But outside in the squares. Because that’s where the industry wants to get into conversation with critics, at least in theory – as long as they don’t trample on the car roofs.
A pleasant approach. The corona epidemic could destroy some of it. The incidence is rising again, now fences have to be put up around the scenes in the city. So this time there is again an inside and outside, which will lead to conflicts, especially since a number of initiatives have announced protests and rather do not want to debate in the chair, from the anonymous alliance “Smash-IAA”, whose posters are hanging all over the city, to the Greens Youth. Many criticize the car industry for promoting its event as a green mobility fair.
The critics are not entirely wrong. Because there are also those in industry who are unfamiliar with the new IAA concept, which wants to combine everything that rolls. We are car manufacturers and should just display our cars nicely instead of having to take buses, trains and car sharing as well, they say behind closed doors. These orthodox do not think much of the fact that bicycles are now also exhibited at the “new IAA”, although some car manufacturers now offer them themselves. They can’t do much with expert panels on “Smart Cities”, instead they complain that the IAA is not international enough, which is probably due to the Corona epidemic. In fact, even VW is not represented with all brands, Peugeot, Opel, Fiat, Volvo, Honda and Toyota completely save themselves the appearance, even expensive super sports cars will not be on display, not even the US company Tesla, which will soon have a plant in Germany opened. The German competition is afraid of the Americans, but they also know that Tesla would attract people, potential customers for everyone.
Or should bigger things be negotiated after all, the transport turnaround, climate protection? It depends who you ask. The car people are not in agreement. The IAA 2021 is a very exciting large-scale experiment in an industry that is currently having to find itself anew. And which sometimes relies on the tried and tested. On Sunday – after the Zeppelin flight – there is a VW break in the Isarpost. A large hall, there is probably loud music, and of course wine and beer, Corona or not. As always. Because as exciting as everything is right now – it would be more convenient if everything stayed the same.