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Of Trade Shows and Sustainability

by Jack Rosebro

Giving the people what they want: the 420 hp, 187 mph Audi R8 debuts in Paris.

With environmentally focused vehicles, research projects, and initiatives announced daily, it would be understandable if readers of Green Car Congress were to parse current reports and conclude that the tide has, indeed, turned in favor of The Green Vehicle. Reality dictates, however, that for the great majority of the industry and its customers, function still follows form.

Few of us are unaware of the emotional pull that the automobile exerts on the collective psyche of the consumers, appealing to what psychologists refer to as our “irrational responses.” Yet nothing demonstrates the sheer scale of the resulting market as clearly as an international motor show.

It’s one thing to see the masses crowded five deep around the premiere of an über-car such as Audi’s new R8 at the Paris Motor Show. It’s quite another to realize, as the event winds down, that manufactured metal celebrities such as this have been mobbed for two weeks straight.

White light, white heat: baking the paint at a Ford exhibit in Hannover.

Defining Excess. Despite the ample natural lighting of the show halls at one recent vehicle show, each exhibit was bathed in so much artificial lighting that air conditioning systems had to be cranked up to overcome the resultant heat.

Forest floors had been excavated from nature to provide a “natural” setting upon which to display environmentally friendly vehicles. Larger companies had custom private restaurants built into the second floor (yes, there’s a second floor) of the exhibits (not the hall containing them) so that exhibitors could woo customers and journalists.

Vast expanses of pavement had been wetted down so that the paying public could witness eighteen-wheel commercial tractors with brakes locked, drifting sideways. Hundreds of thousands of aggregate dollars were spent by exhibitors to have powertrains meticulously cross-sectioned and chrome plated, the elegant cutaways destined for the scrap heap as they are replaced by next year’s components.

Members of the public who wished to test the efficacy of advanced seat belts could strap in to vehicles which were then lifted up and whirled in the air like a circus ride, spinning back and forth to demonstrate that yes, when one is properly cinched in, one’s head is not beaten to a pulp against the interior of the car.

And that was just the Hannover IAA commercial vehicle show, which concluded last month.

The Paris Motor Show (Mondial de l’Automobile), which ends Sunday, is extravagant to yet another order of magnitude. Sleek models in jumpsuits flank next year’s products. Entire vehicles are suspended several stories above the show floors, symbolizing the power that sells so well. Artificial waterfalls and micro-forests have been constructed to provide a natural feel.

More than a million and a half visitors have walked through the gates of the Paris show this year, and virtually all of them walk out carrying bags of swag, much of which is discarded upon exiting the show grounds.

Conservatively estimating the average take at five pounds of marketing material, one may conclude that almost 4,000 tons of paper, soaked in inks and dyes, is sent home with the public. Much of it is likely to end up in a landfill within days. Indeed, one can walk out of the show and down the street on a carpet of four-color debris.

Although exact figures are understandably hard to come by, the same destiny awaits hundreds of tons of construction materials, carpet, flooring, and paint that make up the custom-built exhibits. Strolling through the halls, one is inevitably struck by the newness, the cost-is-no-object quality of every surface, every structure that adorns a show stand. It will all be torn down tomorrow.

Europe, Meet the SUV. The typical North American visitor to Europe cannot help but marvel at its transportation networks. High-speed electric trains crisscross the continent. The cyclist is (usually) respected, and given the right-of-way. Buses are clean and convenient to use. Road tests of new vehicles come with CO2 ratings in grams per mile.

But if that visitor strolls into the Paris Motor Show this year, they will be greeted by a parallel universe of sorts. With rare exception (Peugeot, Toyota, Honda, and Saab come to mind), most manufacturers have shuttled the eco-cars to the back of the show stands, preferring instead to show solidarity with a wall of sport-utility vehicles.

GM’s fuel-cell prototypes, for example, apparently didn’t make the show—but five Hummers are on display, one being somewhat ironically configured to carry a bicycle.

If this seems odd, it is. Vehicles in Europe are almost always taxed by engine displacement. Larger SUVs such as Cadillac’s Escalade may not even be allowed on Parisian streets, if a proposed resolution is passed. Yet it (and its competitors) are front-and-center in the show halls.

Though smaller, even some “eco-concepts,” such as Citroën’s C-Métisse hybrid (earlier post) and Honda’s FCX Concept, as well as the Lexus LS600lh stretch hybrid, are markedly larger than each company’s current offerings. A Toyota executive at the show admitted that even in Europe, “If we want to respond to the market, we have to build large cars.

Although few Paris show-goers express a willingness to personally underwrite a sport-utility, it is clear that the automakers know their market: for many Europeans in attendance, the SUV lifestyle is a coveted one. Even Chinese auto manufacturers such as Landwind, Ssangyong, and Great Wall—up-and-comers consigned to a far corner of Hall 3—have biased their displays toward light trucks and sport-utility vehicles.

It’s interesting to note, however, that back home in China, the nation’s construction minister has ordered all cities to reinstate the bike lanes that had been removed in the last few years to make way for the car. Civil servants must either cycle or take public transport to get to work.

In written remarks issued to the press, French Motor Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association chairman Manuel Gomez said that although the French automotive industry is healthy, “our industry is weighed down by sectarian environmental lobbyists...There is cause to review the efforts demanded in terms of their actual benefit for the environment,” given that, in is words, the French market “has practically eliminated pollutants emissions from its new vehicles.” Gomez did not address greenhouse gases.

Logo of, one of the anti-SUV groups protesting at this year's Paris Motor Show

Understandably, vehicle CO2 ratings were for the most part absent on the show floors, even though several anti-SUV groups staged protests at the Paris show. However, just a day earlier and a TGV train ride away, during a symposium that was held as part of Swiss Energy Week, researcher Thomas Stocker of Bern University had warned that “our climate system has limited stability to perturbations,” and that today’s climactic anomalies are looking “less and less random.

This is not part of a cycle,” Stocker warned. “Climate equals resource. Change equals risk.

Before leaving Paris, this reporter tried in vain to verify whether Saab’s hybridized and bio-fueled convertible prototype did indeed have an plug-in electric receptacle under its hood emblem, as rumored some weeks back. The emblem, however, was found to be securely fastened, and the vehicle’s hood release had been disconnected prior to the show.



"..the 420 hp, 187 mph Audi R8"

You could make a car that looks like this, gets slower 0-60mph but a lot better mpg.
Optimizing what you can produce with what the customers want is the idea.

Joff Pentz

Maybe fast acceleration, 420 hp, and 187 mph is what the customer wants.

Auto makers exist to make money, so they produce what people want to buy. Boys will not have posters of the R8 on their bedroom walls because someone made it - it was made because that is what someone (or, almost everyone) wants.

The fact that you would accept slower acceleration and higher mpg does not mean everyone else would. On the contrary, most people like cars like this, and when they can afford them, they buy them. There are, of course, people such as yourself that want a car with higher mpg, but they are clearly in the minority, or auto shows would be filled with hybrid supercars and the new Prius would be surrounded by models.


I was not stating what I wanted, you attempted to, without knowing. I was pointing out a marketing principle.


This is why you need to mandate higher MPG out of each car/Truck the second gas goes down. They advertise hummersor or cars that do 200 MPH


Its all good people.
These fanciful automobiles cater to the minority. It would be a worry if the Audi R8 cost $20,000, but as it stands its just a spectacle of excess and artisctic expression (with regards to auto design)
Reality for most show goers sets in when they leave the show. :)

Rafael Seidl

Simple fact: consumers only purchase a car once - perhaps twice - in a decade. Therefore, carmakers try very hard to build long-term brand loyalty by producing both loss leaders for first-time buyers and, the higher margin models they aspire to own later in life. A key objective is shifting consumer decisions away from rational and toward (positive) emotional considerations, as this tends to increase sales of option packages and more expensive models and hence, corporate profit margins.

Consumer concerns about the environment are now being instrumentalized in the same way and, for much the same reason. The waters are muddied by a focus on the progress already made wrt emissions, which cause local and regional environmental damage. Energy security and climate change cannot be addressed with catalysts and filters alone - they require fundamental and risky changes in propulsion technology, fuels and chassis construction. The alternative is to discourage car ownership altogether.

Far too many consumers still prefer to remain in denial and avoid dealing with how these realities will impact their personal quality of life. Tangible benefits such as convenience, comfort and status accrue immediately to the owners of SUVs. The risks accumulate over generations and must be borne by society as a whole. The attitude appears to be, more or less, apres moi le deluge. Even very high registration charges and fuel taxes, congestion charges and extensive, heavily subsidized public transportation networks have merely slowed but not halted the advance of what Londoners call the "Chelsea tractors".

Short of outright prohibitions on 4x4 vehicles in city centers, reversing this trend will depend on mobility concepts that offer these selfish consumers even more perceived benefits than SUVs do, with few if any drawbacks. This implies that politicians must continue to encourage heavy investment in transportation R&D in the hope of mitigating the aforementioned risks without killing off major portions of their countries' manufacturing base in the process.


Remember, if you are old enough, the car of choice by the Beetles, some of the richest people on the planet at that time. The Mini. Further, this Mini makes the current Mini from BMW look like a gas guzzler. Sure, back then, most dreams were satisfied by the muscle cars of the time, but there was also a significant number of people, including myself, who bought and drove VW bug. Nothing comes close today for sure lack of performance.

There has always been a significant group of people who bucked the trends of the masses, who, even as early as 1970, realized what a horrible impact the auto was having on the planet, who wanted an alternative lifestyle and an alterntive. "Cool" depends, in part, on your perspective, your values, and your peer group. I think the Prius is one of the sexiest cars of the world, but that's me.

What comes first, consumer demand or demand based on advertising, is still an open question and still being debated within the advertising world. One thing is for sure, though, there is no question that most auto companies clearly don't think that core emotional values are appealed to by putting out a car that is good for the environment.

What I want to know is, who invented the goddamn SUV? What a horrible idea. And if we can find that person, future generations can pillory him, and I'm sure it is a him, for his profound negative impact upon our world.

Part of the appeal of the super fast, super powerful cars, of course, is the perception that they are chick magnets. One of the biggest chick magnets of all time was Paul Newman in his earlier days, who used to drive a VW bug. But this man needed know compensation, notwithstanding his role in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.


My point was that sensible cars do not have to be ugly. They can be jazzy and sporty or SUV like and roomy. Just make them light, streamlined and efficient. If you show people that you can have both, they might just listen. The Union of Concerned Scientists took an Explorer, redesigned it and got much better economy. It was safer, for a slightly higher price and that price increase was easily paid for by the extra economy and safety.


The emotional appeal of one type of design over another is changing. There were plenty of "hippi chicks" in the 70s who only wnated to ride in the VW bus or bug. Today's Prius says of it's owner, somone who cares about the world he/she lives in. If care is a desireable emotional value with opposite sexes - these drivers are getting laid.

It didn't hurt the Leo DiCaprio drove a Prius to various movie biz events - and when the Tesla comes along the high-enders will have a power toy that's good for the planet. There seems no significant technology reasons for the next wave of PHEV diesels not to achieve fast 0-60 or top speed numbers - except cost and mileage.

We think the emotional appeal will be satisfied by appearance alone, retaining good mileage and economy. So if Saturn really does have a PHEV in works - they should make it sexy.

fyi CO2

Audi's business model, Quattro excepted, certainly exhibits a 5-10 year market lag, e.g. the groB 15mpg R6. Also seen on the CNN Money wires today:
When talking about alternative fuels in a meeting with journalists in New York, Ralph Weyler, head of Audi's marketing and sales, declared that "this hybrid thing is a hype" and then in the next breath added that Audi would be introducing hybrid powertrains to satisfy the whims of its American buyers.


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