If there’s breaking news in the automotive world, chances are, you heard it in Geneva, Switzerland. For more than a century the city has played host to one of the world’s preeminent automotive exhibitions — the Geneva Motor Show — which in that time has featured almost every model of internal combustion-powered automobile to enter into mass production, as well as countless prototypes, concept cars and theoretical technologies.
It is the stage on which automotive giants and small-scale developers alike unveil their latest innovations and upcoming models. If you want to see into the future of the automotive industry, Geneva may offer your best glimpse; if the industry is taking a new direction, then the exhibition is your signpost.
Brain beats brawn
This year, the name of the game was diversification, with established makers diverging from longstanding traditions. The appearance of the Volkswagen Touareg, alongside the Porsche Cayenne, indicates the ambitions of the two members of the Volkswagen Group to make their mark on the sports utility vehicle market; Lexus made a splash with its first supercar, the LFA, currently the second most expensive on the market; and Audi unveiled its long-anticipated RS5.
But the most interesting trends on display at the show were not innovations in bigger, faster, more powerful autos. They were the smart cars, the micro models, and above all, an emphasis on hybrid electric vehicles — cars that favor energy saving and fuel efficiency oversize or muscle.
The history of the hybrid is full of ups and downs. The advantage of hybrid vehicles — those that utilize multiple power sources — has been evident since the outset of auto manufacturing. Many different prototypes have entered the spotlight over the years: fuel cells — which ultimately proved limited in scope; and hydrogen — much loved by environmentalists for its pure-water exhaust but ultimately unworkable due to the high energy cost of manufacturing the fuel.
In the end, electricity appears to have prevailed. The electric car is not a novel concept; the first prototypes competed with the earliest combustion engine models, before Henry Ford’s Model-T changed motoring forever in 1908.
The hybrid represents the best of both worlds: combustion and electric. Defined generally, hybrid electric vehicles employ a smaller version of the conventional internal combustion engine, supplemented by an electric powertrain. The car’s lithium-ion electric battery can be recharged either by plugging the car directly into an outlet or by a mechanism which traps the vehicle’s kinetic energy and converts it into electricity.
Shifting into efficiency
The car’s engine is the most common source of electricity generation, although increasingly, other forms of energy trapping such as regenerative braking systems are also making headway. An important aspect of hybrid vehicles is their ability to maximize energy use, which has led to the development of lighter, more streamlined bodies and more efficient engine design.
The number of new models and the industry-wide drive to design more energy-efficient vehicles shows that government incentives to reduce carbon emissions, as well as increased dialogue in the public sector on the drawbacks of reliance on fossil fuels, may be generating real results. The Kingdom of Jordan has begun voiding taxes on imported hybrid cars. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirate’s many taxis are now electro-thermally motorized and the Roads and Transport Authority is encouraging makers to move in the green direction. Even luxury automakers have proved responsive; among the fleet of new hybrids featured at the exposition this year were prototypes from Porsche and Ferrari, neither of which had previously shown much willingness to diverge from their standards of high fossil fuel consumption.
A more electrifying market
The presence of a conceptual model does not necessarily herald an industry-wide turnaround. While it is commendable that manufacturers are willing to delve into the hybrid sector, a concept car is only a theoretical foray until it actually hits the market. But the niche is there, and has been widening over the course of the last 15 years. The first hybrid model, the Toyota Prius, was released in 1997. For the next five years, the world saw one new hybrid a year, sometimes carrying Toyota’s mark, sometimes that of Honda, Toyota’s biggest competitor in the hybrid market. In 2005, four new models were on the market, which grew into 10 in 2009. Projections for 2010 put the number of new hybrid models between 10 and 20.
There has not been a real challenge to the internal combustion engine since the first decades of the Twentieth Century, when early models of cars entirely powered by electricity, benzene and steam were phased out by the domination of fossil-fuels. But every era has its own challenges to meet, and as the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions become increasingly apparent, all sectors of the industry will need to shift their focus to more environmentally-friendly technologies if they are to garner public favor.
That a company like Ferrari should break with all standards of decorum and shed its customary red for a green body paint on its new hybrid is, perhaps, the best visual illustration that the shift has already begun. The beetle green HY-KERS two-seater, slumbering peacefully in the center of the Geneva Motor Show, looked almost ready to wake up.
NADIM MEHANNA is an automotive engineer and the pioneer of motoring on Middle Eastern television since 1992