16 December 2013

Geekiness Dominates this Year’s Motor Shows

This has been a great year for the motor show goers. If the Frankfurt Motor Show was mainly about the power and vroom, the two latest – the LA Motor Show and the Tokyo Motor Show, which for some weird reason were run during the same dates to much dismay of the journalists – showed a much edgier and techier side to the automotive industry.

The green agenda is still pretty much on, however, the car designers and (what’s more important) the executives have understood the importance of removing the first two letters from the word "uncool." The majority of the concept vehicles and future model announcements are both eco-friendly and adhering to the modern stylistic requirements.

What Young People Want

It’s evident that the large car manufacturers are trying to understand the changing face of the car buyer. The Nissan IDx was a good example of how the manufacturers are targeting the young tech-savvy buyer who is tired of the uniform car design and wants to stand out. The car is an obvious homage to the Datsun 1200 Coupe. There’s certainly place on the market for a car like Nissan IDx Freeflow. If you crave a boxy old-school car and you’re not particularly keen on the American muscle car revival, what do you do?

You either go to the great lengths to import an obscure car from Japan or settle for a used car. The IDx Freeflow might be an answer. The only remaining question is whether Carlos Ghosn is brave enough to put this car on the production line. Judging by the people’s reaction, it’s 50/50 – you either adore it or hate it. This fact doesn’t help the prospects of the IDx to ever go on sale, which is a great shame.

Geeky is the New Cool

The word Geek originally had a negative connotation allegedly stemming from the Old English meaning a fool. As it has happened with many dubious words, the whirlwind of the tech advance has turned its meaning upside down. You can’t really insult anyone by calling him a geek these days. With many things from fashion to lifestyle now being "geek," you can’t help wanting to buy yourself a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and join the fun.

Can cars become geeky? Let me break the news to you – they already have. A few years ago people were complaining that there were too much electronics in the modern cars making them more difficult to repair. The industry responded by introducing even more sophisticated electronics in their newer cars.

Tech Tops the Conversation

If you were to follow conversation around the big motor shows a few years back, the people would have mainly discussed the body designs or the new model announcements. This year people are talking about the tech and geekery. The online car forums and Twitter streams are full of speculations of the technological trends and allusions to the popular subcultures of cyberpunk and manga. The cars are gradually turning into cult objects once again, almost the way they did back in the 1950s – only this new cult is much darker and noisier.

The recent Tokyo motor show proved to be very popular on the online forums – and not just the car forums. The things that dominated the conversation this year were the in-car tech, robotics and Anime-styled futuristic concept vehicles.

One such vehicle was the Kawasaki J. What looks like a quad-bike at first, is actually a 3-wheel electric vehicle. It hasn’t got two wheels at the back – it’s one big fat roller. Everyone seems to think that Kawasaki was inspired by the Shotaro Kaneda’s bike from the timeless classic manga novel – Akira.

If you look at the personal mobility solutions presented at the Tokyo Motor show, the Honda Uni Cub and the Yamaha Tricity both have a bit of the dystopian theme going on.

Americans Ignored the Tokyo Motor Show

Surely, it was bordering on stupid to schedule both shows at the same dates, however, this is not really a good excuse for a no-show. My biggest surprise is Ford – they sell quite a few Mustangs and Navigators in Japan so for them to ignore the show was a bad decision. The only US-based manufacturer to attend the Tokyo show was Tesla showing off their Model S and gathering huge crowds around its enormous 17-inch central console touchscreen.

Even the tech-freaks that the Japanese people are (in a most positive way possible) seeing the Tesla’s big screen left them speechless. Once again, this sparked a conversation about the trends of in-car entertainment/infotainment systems and the increased driver distraction that inevitably goes with it.

Judging by the forum conversations and tweets, people seem to love the big touch-screens but it will take a couple of years to gather the car crash stats to understand whether the snowballing dependence on the in-car gadgets actually causes the number of fatal road accidents to go up.

Closer to the Fuel Cell Future

In the meantime the Japanese manufacturers didn’t ignore the LA Motor Show and they brought a large quantity of cool stuff to California. My highlight is probably the Honda FCEV Concept (come on, give it a cooler name). Although it reads "concept" in the official motor show literature, it’s actually a bit more than just a concept. It was revealed that the exciting fuel cell car is going to go on sale in 2015. Don’t get too excited yet – it’s not coming to the UK any time soon. The FCEV is planned to go on sale in California only – because, although rudimentary, the coastal region of the SoCal has got a hydrogen filling station network.

The FCEV dominated the green car-related conversation surrounding the LA show and the dominant theme from the conversation is that people trust that Honda is really going to manage the deadline of delivering the FCEV to the market by 2015. This is mainly because there’s a precedent – the previous fuel cell model by Honda – the FCX Clarity – went on a limited lease scheme in 2008.

Only a handful of lucky people got the privilege of driving one because the costs of building a single unit of FCX Clarity were as high as one million dollars. They have allegedly managed to improve the balance and now it’s estimated that on an open market the Clarity would cost from $125,000 upwards – still way more than anyone would be prepared to spend on it. Chances are that by the time the FCEV is prepared for the limited production, the cost will be cut even further.

For the last few decades we were certainly lacking excitement in the motoring world. The majority of the car manufacturers were simply going from one boring model to the next one. Things have changed lately and the main catalyst for this change – I think – has been the fact that the manufacturers have begun to listen to what people want.

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