VW focuses on technology in new humility

Wire reports

Geneva — Volkswagen AG dispensed with DJs and dancers and instead focused its presentation at the Geneva car show around a toned-down message on automotive technology, sending a signal that the scandal-hit German carmaker has changed.

In an obvious departure from its tradition of kicking off a major car show with a 1,500-person gala of self glorification, a young Volkswagen executive spoke to a few hundred guests about a future when parking lots will be transformed into parks as efficient and reliable self-driving cars roam the unclogged streets.

“Today, the largest part of time spent in cars is lost time,” said Johann Jungwirth, 42, who was hired by Volkswagen in November for the new role of chief digital officer. “We are going to give this time back to people,” said the former Apple Inc. executive, speaking on Monday evening at a loft at Geneva’s conference center, rather than the arena-like setting of past events in the Swiss city.

Despite that lower-key message, VW was the target of a protest by English comedian Simon Brodkin, who interrupted VW board member Jurgen Stackmann at the show by jumping on stage.

Dressed in mechanics coveralls and holding a wrench and a device labeled “cheat box,” Brodkin crawled under a display car. After being interrupted by the protester, Stackmann quipped: “It doesn’t need repairs: It’s a perfect car.” Security guards then whisked away Brodkin away.

A recall of millions of cars in Europe is likely to extend into next year, and a solution in the U.S. may still be weeks or months away. Meanwhile, the release of 2015 earnings were delayed until at least April amid financial uncertainties stemming from the six-month-old scandal.

Car-show extravaganzas were among the first expenses to get the ax when Chief Executive Officer Matthias Mueller took over last year to find a way out of the crisis. Last year’s event featured Austrian producer Stefan Obermaier and the Berlin-based electronic duo Booka Shadeas DJs. Past events have included appearances by Justin Timberlake, P!nk and the Pet Shop Boys.

At this year’s show, presentations of new models such as the Audi Q2 compact SUV and even the Bugatti Chiron took a back seat to Jungwirth’s vision as he outlined plans to set up so-called future centers in Germany, California and China.

The facilities will fuse digitalization experts with designers to work on how people interact with their cars. The effort is part of a broader shift to move beyond the traditional automotive business of making and selling cars. CEO Mueller called digitalization developments a “game changer.”

Volkswagen will “in part become a software and services company” as mobility technology develops, Jungwirth said. “It is absolutely trendsetting and unique in the car industry” to put digital development and design together.