Daimler's Media Night presentation at the IAA in Frankfurt was a showy affair, meant to present the Mercedes Benz maker's speeding into the future. But first it has to get through the present, says Janelle Dumalaon.
Surrounded by flashing lights and rapt onlookers, more than two million euros worth of world-premiered car roars around a raised platform.
This is Project ONE (pictured above). If it could leave the platform and careen towards the road, it would be able to do so at a top speed upwards of 350 kilometers per hour (217 miles per hours), with 1000 horse power helped along by Formula 1 technology. It's supposed to be the most ambitious road car Mercedes's high performance division AMG has ever conceived, a hybrid among hybrids, with a petrol engine that operates in combination with four electric motors.
The cheer that goes through the crowd betrays just how hotly anticipated this car was. And it was hard not to be swept up in the cool.
The future is here, and it's corny
It almost made up for the ill-advised nod to the millennial market, where Daimler presented what's supposed to be the future of the connected car, the Smart Vision EQ ForTwo in a High School Musical-reminiscent song-and-dance number.
Teenager Kate goes to a concert, reminisces with her mother on the phone before she gets there about how cars used to have steering wheels. Soon after she manages to find romance — in these connected times, that means, finding a digital profile you like — in the connected fleet of cars on the road.
This is all done in tune to a giggle-inducing refrain: "everything is possible with a car that drives itself, it's incredible, it's a car that's always there!" Pure poetry.
In July, Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche came under mounting pressure after the carmaker was accused of selling over a million cars with excessive emissions in Europe and the United States.
Are we being razzle-dazzled?
The feeling is that the shine and shimmer are supposed to distract from the recent clouds. It wasn't too long after Volkswagen that Daimler found itself enveloped in Dieselgate itself.
Daimler's Mercedes Benz announced a three-million-vehicle recall to do upgrades on the diesel cars, and then came the allegations that Daimler, BMW, and Volkswagen colluded for years to fix prices on exhaust emissions systems.
Daimler's standard line had been to say it's cooperating with authorities. That might be much more than they're saying now. In the run-up to the media show for the press ahead of the official press days of the Frankfurt Motor Show, Daimler's communications team said the board would not be giving any television interviews. That could have been in the hope that the goldenness of silence might help Daimler might keep the future bright.
Not that complete silence was an option.
"Public trust in the German car industry's strength in innovation, and future sustainability has been lost," said CEO Dieter Zetsche. "I regret that very much." The Smart cars, he added, would only be electric by the end of 2020. But a ban on diesels would be "short-sighted."
Past, present, and future (not so) perfect
Its current self is not doing that badly, considering the scandal. Goldman Sachs raised its rating of the car company's stock from neutral to buy recently on news Daimler was considering a change to its corporate holding structure, putting smiles on shareholders' faces.
And a brand new study presented by automotive industry intelligence firm IHS Markit on Monday on brand loyalty, had Mercedes coasting ahead of the premium brands, with more than 84 percent of new Mercedes owners going back to market and buying a new Mercedes car within a year.
In his speech, Zetsche said Daimler was operating from a position of success, meaning that it had the profits and prowess to see it sail on to the future, despite the drag from scandal. That could well end up being true.
But if there's a lesson German carmakers might learn from the last two years it could be one against hubris. Accountability is going to have to be part of that all-important quest for future sustainability — no amount of glossing over the present will change that.