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Where are the disrupters at this year’s Geneva Motor Show?

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The Geneva International Motor Show is in its 86th year. It seems reasonable to ask; has it changed much? And will it change more? The production values have certainly changed, to the point that the show often feels like the Oscars. The tech in the cars has changed too, to the point that your car might rival your laptop for computing power. But I get the feeling the idea of the show remains constant; strong and steady. Big glamorous cars generate large profits. And big glamorous cars require a lot of marketing. So it’s show time. Ergo…the show goes on.

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But we all know big glamorous cars don’t make much sense any more, especially in congested, polluted cities. We all know we want efficiency rather than glamour, because we have less spending power. Wages stagnate while youth unemployment and poverty increase. Tech savvy, interconnected millennials are changing the way we consume. Yet we all know glamour won’t be going away, however inefficient and expensive it may be. The ever-richer rich at least will aways be able to afford glamorous status symbols.

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So is the auto industry right to be conservative, or is it a sitting target, ripe for disruption? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between?

There is very little sign of disruption at the show. Everything looks just swell – and exceedingly well lit. The CEO’s shout and spout about clean, innovative technologies in their new vehicles as often as drums role and the champagne bottles pop. There are clean, neat electric cars on practically every stand. This looks like an industry on the up, adapting to new challenges. But it isn’t. This is an industry embroiled in multiple scandals (Volkswagen’s ‘dieselgate’ being only one), and constantly looking to government for financial support, not least in the form of oil and gas subsidies, electric-car subsidies and tax breaks. Meanwhile, those subsidised electric car sales are only just over one percent of total car sales. And with oil prices seemingly at their lowest in living memory, sales of gas guzzlers are on the increase.

The generally agreed opinion amongst ‘insiders’ is that electric cars dominated the last few shows (to not very great effect) but this year, the gas guzzlers are back at the forefront, shouting ‘buy me’. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

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But wait. One disrupter is clearly present. Tesla. Tesla has had a stand as big and shiny as many of the others for a year or two now. Elon Musk is just about everyone’s favourite billionaire entrepreneur, and much has been written already about his abilities and successes. Of course Tesla has a big stand – he can afford it. His ‘open tech’ approach, exemplified by releasing all Tesla patents, is truly ground breaking. It means increased competition, even within a Tesla vehicle, never mind within the broader market place. There won’t be monopolies on Tesla car parts for example. Nevertheless, for the time being, Tesla remains a premium product line. This will change a little with the introduction next year of the more affordable Tesla Model 3. But the basic car-ownership model remains in place.

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The big disrupter ‘idea’ of the past few years has been the ‘sharing’ economic model, which seems to have followed on from the not-entirely-successful ‘open’ (source/access) model of disruption in the noughties. (Paywalls are being built rather than removed right now right across the media. Neither Microsoft Windows nor Apple’s OS can be described as open, even if Google’s Android can. Disruption comes and goes it seems, in repeated waves perhaps.)

Airbnb is the quintessential ‘sharing economy’ success story. But the most valuable, most controversial, most uber-hyped start-up of recent years is of course…wait for it…Uber, of course. It’s clearly the big brother of all the ride-sharing, car-hiring, transport efficiency start-ups. And it doesn’t own a single vehicle, as yet. It is just a market place, they say, where services can be simply sought, offered and bought.

All these players are looking to disrupt the automotive industry.  The tech giants are perhaps best placed to develop the necessary algorithms for self-driving, autonomous vehicles. On the other hand, maybe Uber has the advantage when it comes to sharing those vehicles efficiently and effectively amongst a networked community of potential users. The vehicle itself should hardly matter, so long as it is safe and clean, and of an appropriate speed and comfort to get from A to B as required.

So there is our list of disrupters that maybe should have been at this year’s show; Microsoft, Apple, Google and Uber. They are the elephants in the room at Geneva. Maybe they were there, incognito, checking out the established players. You will find them much more publicly on show at tech shows such as the Mobile World Congress, which was in Barcelona a few weeks ago. And its no surprise a few car manufacturers were there too. Nissan, Ford, and Volvo were all there, trumpeting new apps and new tech.

We might conclude the glamour and the hype and the high production values of the Geneva International Motor Show are less about success and more about fear. Stormy waters lie ahead. Disruption is inevitable. Some will survive, some will die. Wave after crushing wave of unpredictable disruption. Hopefully we end up with greener, cleaner, safer more cost-effective transport options. But remember this; we all like a little glamour, a little luxury, occasionally. So who knows where it will end?

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