This year's Geneva Motor Show – what it means for the car industry in the 2010s

This column is a guest post from Carlo Ombello, who is translating Chris Goodall's Ten Technologies into Italian. Carlo reports from the world's most important showroom for new cars. I’ve been a huge fan of Geneva’s Motor Show for a long time, but to me this year’s exhibition marked a transition between the past and the future. In its last few shows I got used to my eyes bulging at the latest super-powerful sports cars, or the newest models from both mass and upper market makers, all inevitably featuring sporty versions (my favourite) with high acceleration – and  fuel consumption – figures. But this year was different: a slew of new electric and hybrid models flooded the Geneva ‘Salon Auto’.

Virtually every major carmaker put on display one or more plug-in cars (Renault, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes, Peugeot, Citroen, Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, Seat, Volkswagen, Toyota, Lexus, Opel  just to name a few) but, what matters most, those vehicles were the ones which generally grabbed most of the public’s attention. If style is what always attracts show goers first, the technology lying beneath the skin is the next wonder. So here we go, from the top down, giving a brief summary of the most attractive new models the Geneva Motor Show offered to car enthusiasts from all over the world, and what this may mean for the coming decade.

Porsche’s hybrid prototype Spyder 918 was perhaps the biggest surprise of the exhibition. Sporting both a 500-hp V8 and a pair of electric motors (one per axle) producing an additional 218 hp (160kW), this stunning concept car allegedly reaches  62 miles per hour in 3.2 seconds, 198 mph top speed, whilst achieving 78 miles per gallon and just 70 grams of CO2 per kilometer. Whether these figures are real is to be confirmed, but it’s the concept behind all this that counts. Porsche are seriously venturing in the plug-in market (and they usually bring their prototypes into production), something hardly anyone would have thought possible just a couple of years ago. This is probably due to the likes of Tesla, threatening to eat in Porsche’s market share with its full electric roadster, rather than to the German carmaker’s fuel-efficiency consciousness, but it nevertheless represents a huge step in a new direction, and a move that they will be unlikely to reverse.

Runner-up in the car enthusiast’s imagination was probably Ferrari’s 599 GTB Fiorano Hybrid prototype. The concept car boosts a 100+ hp electric motor in addition to the 6.0-liter, 611-hp V12 engine. Ferrari’s Hykers regenerative braking system (where 'Hy' stands for hybrid and 'kers' refers to the Kinetic Energy Recuperation System Ferrari used during the 2009 F1 season) helps recharging the floorpan-fitted lithium-ion batteries. "This is a first step of a long project and we want within three years, maximum four, to have a hybrid Ferrari car ready for every single product of our range. This is our goal," said Luca di Montezemolo, Ferrari’s Chairman. "In three years we aim to cut emissions by a minimum of 35 percent". Again, this is hardly an environment-conscious carmaker, yet their fast-growing engagement in experimenting hybrid powertrain technologies bears witness to the attention the car industry is now giving to alternatives to the century-old internal combustion engines. At a pace never seen before.

In the list of the most interesting and eye-catching new models and prototypes, Mercedes sported the F800 Style plug-in hybrid, a concept car that mimics the future style of its CLS model, and whose drive unit consists of a 300-hp V6 gasoline engine coupled to a 109-hp electric module. The vehicle has a certified fuel consumption of only 2.9 liters of gasoline per 100 kilometers, corresponding to CO2 emissions of 68 grams per kilometer, less than 50% of the average UK new car. With the performance of a sports car (0-60 mph in 4.7 s, top speed of 155 mph) its hybrid drive is set to appear in various future models from Daimler-Mercedes, while the German maker also puts down some roots in the full electric market through its partnerships with Tesla and the Chinese BYD, and the production of the Smart EV (also widely displayed).

General Motors’ Opel Flextreme GT/E Concept also premiered at Geneva, featuring the Chevrolet Volt / Opel Ampera drivetrain. Unlike conventional hybrids, the wheels of the Flextreme GT/E are powered at all times by electricity, with a small gasoline engine working as generator to provide electricity when the batteries are flat. With a battery-powered driving range of up to 60 km – with zero CO2 tailpipe emissions – and a total range of more than 500 km provided by the range-extending gasoline generator, average fuel consumption is estimated at 1.6 l/100 km, with CO2 emissions of less than 40 g/km. The motor in the electric drive unit delivers 120kW (163 hp) and 370 Nm of instant torque, giving the car a projected 0-100 km/h acceleration in less than nine seconds.

Seat surprised visitors with its beautiful IBE full-electric prototype. With a maximum output of 75 kW (102 hp) and 200 Nm of torque, its electric power unit delivers 0-100 km/h in 9.4 seconds. The 18 kWh battery pack allows the IBE to cover the daily mobility requirements of city life, while keeping its weight down to just 1,000kg. Anticipating the information network of the future, the car is capable of exchanging data about its status or safety alerts directly with other vehicles or the traffic infrastructure. Sources from the Volkswagen-owned maker claim the concept will be brought into production, consistently with Spain’s overall electricity grid strategy, to provide more and more power through renewable energy.

Audi featured the A1 e-tron prototype, the electric version of its latest model, also premiering in Geneva. The lithium ion battery pack has a capacity of 12 kWh, with a range of about 30 miles (48 km). The electric motor provides a standard output of 45 kW or 61 hp, with a peak power of 75 kW or 102 hp helping the car to perform 0-100 km/h in around 10 seconds. The motor and all of the power electronics reside in the car's front. A small Wankel engine sitting below the cargo floor of the car can extend the A1 e-tron's range to 130 miles.

Peugeot stunned show attenders with its gorgeous 3-seater convertible SR1 concept car. Its hybride powertrain offers a 1.6 l engine, delivering 160 kW (218 hp) to the front wheels, coupled with a 70-kW (95-hp) electric motor to the rear wheels,  for a total of 230 kW (313 bhp) with CO2 emissions of 119 g/km (0 in electric mode), 4 wheel drive and steering. 0-100 km/h in 4.7 s, top speed 250 km/h (155 mph).

More plug-in models were on display from Peugeot (the electric mini i0n and the diesel hybrid “5 by Peugeot”), Citroen (from the supemini sporstcar Survolt concept, to the future model C-Zero, both full electric), Toyota and Lexus (with their ever increasing fleet of hybrids), Honda (the stylish EV-N and the three-wheeled 3R-C), Volkswagen (their first hybrid Touareg), Hyundai (the diesel hybrid i-Flow), Nissan (the well known Leaf),  Renault (their three creative EV concepts Twizy, Zoe and Fluence are ready for the “Better Place” battery-swap system) and other makers.

I could go on forever, but I prefer to finish my list with a couple of refreshingly simple electric models that got my attention more than others. The Kia Venga EV, a battery version of the normal production model, nicely demonstrates how the electric alternative to a production model needn’t look different; it features an electric motor with top power of 80 kW and maximum torque of 280 Nm, while its 24 kWh battery pack gives it a range of about 180km (112 miles). And finally, the BMW ActiveE concept, based on the 1 Series coupe, shows BMW’s growing commitment to pure electric vehicles, alongside their hybrid options also displayed on stage (most noticeably the new 5 Series ActiveHybrid). The ActiveE retains the 1 Series four seats and a 200 liters boot, boosting a 170hp electric engine capable of a 0-100 km/h acceleration in 8.5 seconds, with a range of about 100 miles (160km). 700 units of the Active E will be leased this year around the world for testing, similarly to what was done with the Mini E last year.

Geneva's pattern was clear.

The evidence is mounting: electric cars are no more the impossible dream of a few forward-thinkers, they are instead set to become mainstream. The automotive industry is heading full throttle towards hybrid and eventually full electric propulsion, and there is no turning back. What was shown in Geneva highlighted the car industry’s increasing desire and necessity to catch consumers’ attention through style and sustainability, in the attempt –made by every carmaker – to move ahead of their old and new competitors in this looming, unprecedented rush to the automobile revolution. Car 2.0 is coming, and it’s the real thing, a world-changing game. So real that for the first time in many years new brands like Tesla can dream of threatening  the market share of well established European makers. Some companies like Nissan-Renault got the message and skipped hybrids altogether to get ahead in the race for the bigger electric prize. Others are still shy and keep experimenting a variety of solutions. But more and more plug-in prototypes and new models are announced month after month. It’s a rush that cannot be stopped anymore, and there are more reasons to its increasing pace than just competition and fear of losing ground to competitors.

China and India, not Europe or the US, will play the crucial role. They are devoting increasing funds and long term plans to developing their own renewable energy industry, smart grid and of course electric cars. We have already seen what it means to a worldwide industry, be it wind or solar to name but two, when China or India weigh in (suffice to see last year’s installed wind capacity in China, or both China and India’s projected solar and wind capacities for the coming decade). What is it likely to happen to the car industry, when their own EVs and batteries will flood the market, and will be bought by millions of Indian and Chinese people in the first place? Without even trying to make up unpredictable figures, we can easily anticipate one adjective for their impact to the automotive market: huge.

And if Asia holds the key to the energy and car markets destiny, there is one more key ingredient to the future of cars, which is worth stressing. Electric vehicles, Car 2.0, are in their nature – and industrial/marketing development potential – much closer to IT gadgets than to traditional cars. They belong to the Information Technology market. Forget about moving parts, oil leaks, expensive engine maintenance, EVs are the next IT frenzy after mobile phones, laptops, iPods and the likes. Like any IT gadget, the main required operation will be to plug them when idle (something that’s fair to say most of us are already used to). Like laptops or smart phones, EVs will be multi-tasking tools, sending and receiving data through the smart electricity grid, and even displaying messages to the public through their metal skin (seen in Geneva). But unlike laptops and phones, they will also feed power to the grid when required (turning into a nation’s precious asset). Like any IT gadgets, we will keep them for as long as swapping batteries will make sense, only to replace them when a cooler, up to date model will storm the market.

And most importantly, as any other IT gadget, the learning curve of EVs will be far steeper and quicker than that of the old-fashioned manufacturing industry, leading to incredible improvements in a very limited timeframe: months, rather than years. Battery research, already in a booming frenzy, will see breakthrough results pouring in faster and faster, possibly fading away range anxiety well before EVs do become mainstream. If Nissan is already claiming it will give a 200 miles range to its Leaf EV by 2015, chances are better results could come in even earlier. More energy-dense, lighter and cheaper battery packs are just round the corner. The critical mass has been reached.

A lot of old-fashioned energy consultancy firms and automotive analysts, let alone the International Energy Agency, keep posting studies showing very low percentages for EVs penetration in the car market  by 2020, or even 2030 or 2050 (the oil industry is particularly good at making these self-indulging long term predictions). They all miss the point: none of their projection models have built in the presence of new wildly powerful global market drivers (such as China or India, as suppliers and consumers), none of them seem to appreciate (purposedly?) the disruptive effect of even a slight under-supply of oil to the world’s economy and industry. All of them, finally, underestimate how customers could suddenly decide that electric cars are what they want to buy.