Before the Frankfurt Motor Show opened, car company bosses were read the riot act by the chancellor. Now the show is open to the public, but it is still much too early to speak of a turning point, says Henrik Böhme.
When the cover of a German motoring club's magazine has the headline "Ways out of the diesel disaster" something has changed. The magazine, published by ADAC is also the central organ of the German car driver and manufacturers so to speak. On the other hand, the German car bosses still shy away from the evil word "Dieselgate" as if it were the plague. They rather talk about "this situation" or the "diesel issue."
A lot of questions...
It is almost exactly two years since Volkswagen's diesel fraud was exposed. And just like then the Frankfurt Motor Show was in full swing. First, Martin Winterkorn outlined the great changes which the auto industry was facing. Four days later the diesel bomb exploded and Winterkorn was history.
The scandal threw the mighty Volkswagen group, the world's largest car maker, into an existential crisis. But the bad boys were not just in Wolfsburg, the home of Volkswagen. At Daimler, too, manipulation went on. Now FiatChrysler along with French competitors Renault and PSA are being investigated.
So as the Frankfurt International Motor Show (IAA) once again rolls around the big question was: How will the German carmakers present themselves on their home territory? Repentant? Will they finally come around and give up their reluctance to look into alternatives to the internal combustion engine? What surprises have they brought with them to regain lost trust? And what will the chancellor do ten days before Germany's general election — especially while sharing the stage with cheaters?
...and the answers
Here are the answers: No one came in a repentant mood. A little regret was expresses, but a "sorry" was nowhere in sight. Rather the strategy seems to be to rush headlong into the future.
If Dieselgate brought anything good with it, then it was the realization that German carmakers need to now finally start a big offensive in electric mobility. Billions will be spent for this push and great promises made.
But these are just promises and there have been plenty of these in the past. So it remains to be seen whether such ambitious plans can really be implemented, especially since the electric cars currently available still have a rather lousy environmental footprint.
She's really upset? Are you kidding me?
Finally, the much anticipated appearance of Angela Merkel. A few days ago in the TV debate with her political challenger, she said that she was "really upset" with the heads of the car companies; which in the end was her only emotional outburst in an otherwise boring "duel." And what's more, she will not speak any differently at the IAA show. No chance!
At the Frankfurt exhibition when all the bosses were sitting in the front row, she was much less dramatic: Gaps were excessively exploited, consumers were deceived and disappointed, confidence had to be restored as quickly as possible, and oh, the internal combustion engine will be around for decades.
Are you serious? It's as if the speech was written by the organizer of the trade fair, the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA). Why not swing the club? Why not threaten new regulations? A head of government who has always fulfilled every wish of the automobile sector even when Brussels threatened stricter thresholds, may well be inclined to put her foot down, because after all they even deceived her.
Going the wrong way
In the end this unhealthy attachment between politics and the auto industry will remain in place. However, this closeness is a major hurdle to the advent of a new age of mobility.
It is already clear which path we are taking — there are even hints of it visible at the show in Frankfurt: Cars will become components in a digital mobility network; they will be free of emissions and will be shared. All of this could be shaped by the German car industry. But in order for this to happen, they must leave their hiding places behind the barricades. They must pro-actively cooperate with other manufactures and industries.
Yet even though Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz, BMW and others have now decided to enter the electric age, the Frankfurt show is still dominated by performance and luxury. This is heading in the wrong direction.