The center of the automotive universe this week is in Frankfurt, Germany, and what’s missing? Oh, roughly two-thirds of Detroit’s automakers.
Fiat Chrysler Automobile NV’s Fiat, Jeep and Alfa Romeo brands are skipping the biennial confab, a move that’s not nearly as suspect as it would have been just a few years ago. Not when auto shows, including Detroit’s own, increasingly are proving optional on the global industry calendar.
General Motors Co., for some 90 years a fixture in the European market, is out of the game on the other side of the pond, save for vanity sales of a few Corvettes and Cadillacs. Kinda happens that way when you peddle your German Opel brand and British Vauxhall brand to France’s PSA Groupe SA.
Detroit’s No. 1 automaker is pretty much irrelevant in the world’s No. 3 (for now) regional market. If you ever spent any time plying GM’s vast network of plants and offices, tech center and ambitious operations in such far-flung places as Russia, as I have, you’d appreciate just how total the retreat truly is.
The Frankfurt International Auto Show’s decidedly home-town bent confirms it: between rising demands from investors, environmental regulators and the global auto industry’s proverbial 800-pound gorilla known as China, change is the new normal for industry heavyweights used to calling the shots.
A humbled Mattias Müller, CEO of Volkswagen AG, used a pre-show news conference Monday to concede, once again, that VW “has got the message, and we will deliver,” according to Bloomberg News. “The transformation in our industry is unstoppable. And we will lead that transformation.”
The big promise: the automaker that nearly destroyed itself with its global diesel deception now is vowing to build electric versions of all 300 models across its 12 brands. The dizzying about-face shows just how pressured VW is by changing regulatory standards originating from European capitals and China.
As if to punctuate the point of who (or what), exactly, is in charge, Chinese officials said over the weekend the country would push to end the sale of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles. The move mirrors similar steps by France and the United Kingdom, signaling that government regulators — not customers or the automakers who serve them — are calling the shots.
More, decision-makers outside the industry effectively are driving multibillion-dollar investment decisions, from Detroit and Wolfsburg to Tokyo, Munich and Stuttgart. German automakers that invested heavily in perfecting diesel engines now face the harsh truth that billions in capital are imperiled by the unmistakable shift to green electric powertrains.
Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz unveiled its AMG Project One, a “hypercar” that features hybrid technology derived from Formula 1 racing. The three-pointed star also is showing the Mercedes GLC F-Cell, a fuel cell plug-in hybrid — all of it, and more, answers to the changing regulatory climate and its growing electric bias.
BMW AG’s chief financial officer, Nicolas Peter, told Bloomberg that sales of diesel-powered cars are “not collapsing,” even as he acknowledged the premium automaker might “see an ongoing slight decline of diesel. But I don’t expect a dramatic drop.”
Maybe not immediately. But it’s hard to see the diesel business model remaining unaffected, not when China and two of western Europe’s three largest markets signal the end to engines burning fossil fuels. Think that’ll be the end of the parade?
Think again. But stiffening emissions standards and advancing mobility technology are combining to impose dramatic change on an industry that has kept society moving for more than a century — with human drivers and internal-combustion engines.
Both of those familiar paradigms are being challenged, which has dramatic implications for investors and industry leaders, rival industries and, of course, current and former employees wondering how all the change will affect them and their pocketbooks.
Ford Motor Co., however, is bucking the Detroit trend in Frankfurt. The Dearborn automaker is making the European debut of its iconic Mustang, the compact Ecosport SUV and a passenger version of its Transit Custom van.
The Blue Oval still matters in Germany. It is the country’s largest foreign-owned employer; it’s profitable and gaining market share there; and after a long drought heavy with criticism, its metal is garnering praise from the notoriously tough (and biased) German motoring press.
That kind of progress can be measured in dollars and cents, and that matters in an industry where profitability still counts.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him at 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.