German auto show: politics, mergers and flying cars
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In the massive Frankfurter Messe, 11 halls are filled with the latest automotive technology. It’s glitter and glamour with all the big brands present, and organizers did their best to strike a robust and optimistic tone: the car industry is getting over its scandals, it’s getting cleaner, and it’s taking a flight into the future with a car that flies.
It looks like a giant wasp with its wings folded. The Aeromobil is a propeller driven hybrid between a car and a small airplane. It has a top speed of 160 km/h on the road, until it takes transforms itself – within 3 minutes – into an airplane. A push on a button, and the wings unfold, and the driver-turned-pilot is ready to take off.
“It is an alternative to transportation options we have today,” says Stephan Vadocz, CCO of Aeromobil, the Slovanian company that produces the flying car. “It’s part of the future: electric cars, flying cars, passenger aerial vehicles that will connect cities more effectively.”
Think of the shorter travel time, you just hop in and fly away. No, it is no danger for regular airplanes, as its flight path is at only 3,000 metres, far below regular airliners that fly at around 10,000 metres.
Flying car for 1.2 million
The air-car has a pricetag: for 1.2 million euro. And it needs 40 hours of flight training on top of a regular driving license.
But it you can’t just drive over the A10 and then decide to take off. “It would not be possible,” says Vadocz. “Maybe in Alaska or Australia it would be possible, but in Europe you need places that are designed for air traffic.” So you still may face a traffic jam before reaching the airport.
Whether or not aviation authorities will ever allow the flying car to take off is far from clear, but its daring presence symbolizes the optimistic atmosphere at the Internationale Automobil Ausstellung [IAA] in Frankfurt am Main, the largest car show on the planet.
On Thursday, the fair was opened by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who urged car producers to win back the trust of what she called "deceived" drivers, hinting at the walking 'dieselgate' emissions cheating scandal that has become a campaign issue which may damage Merkel as she maintains cozy relations to the industry.
Merkel critical of auto chiefs
But recently, she’s become more critical towards the company chiefs.
"Auto industry firms excessively exploited regulatory loopholes, they haven't only damaged themselves, but above all deceived and disappointed consumers and the authorities," she warned during her speech at the IAA opening.
But Merkel, who is set to win a fourth term as chancellor in upcoming elections on Sunday, took pains not to alienate the car sector. She ended by stressing its role as a "key industry" that gives jobs to 870,000 people in Germany alone and is seen as a motor of European industries in general.
But not all German companies are doing well: Opel, a very old German brand that was working for almost a century under the wing of US carmaker GM, was lossmaking years and as a result dumped by the Americans, it went through phases of streamlining, and was this year bought by French car giant PSA, manufacturer of Peugeot and Citroen.
Opel bought by French car giant
And prospective German buyers seem happy about it. Stephan Ruessel just tried the brand new Citroen C3 Aircross SUV. “I like it, it is special. Not something mainstream you find everywhere. It has a lot of extra’s. I always like French cars, it is not so rational, like German cars. It is well done.”
The fact that a French company came to the rescue of a German one is not a matter of concern for Ruessel.
“It didn’t have a good reputation in the past, but it is getting better. And for me now it is actually something to consider. I think they will profit from this new cooperation with PSA. It lets them stand out a little bit more.”
One elderly prospective Opel buyer, who calls himself “Herr Bauer,” agrees. “It’s ok. Why not? I think it is very interesting. I think within Europe, we should come together. It will be better for all of us.”
Opel refused RFI and interview about the merger with PSA, saying that “as long as the first 100 days of [Opel’s new CEO] Michael Lohsheller are not over, we will not give interviews, we need this time to work on our future plans,” wrote Peter Vos, an Opel spokesperson, in an email.
In other parts of the car show, people can test-drive SUV’s over artificial barriers, the road rescue-service is instructing the public how to crawl out of an overturned car, and there are Formula 1 simulators that swing and jump dangerously through a sophisticated hydraulic system.
Tucked away in Hall 4 is a stand of the University of Saarbrucken, that works studies the reduction of CO², how to better measure pollution from the exhaust pipes, and how to make cars communicate through wireless LAN, so as to avoid accidents. A mobile devise that can be attached at the back of a driving car is designed to make precise calculations and to do honest measurements.
“The problem was that the measurements were done on special test tracks,” says Jonas Vogt, research team leader with the University of Saarbrucken. “All the conditions were set, and they were ideal conditions. But with this system, we hang it on a car, and we can just go out and drive on the main road in a day-to-day situation.
The device was designed as a reaction to Dieselgate, when the US Environmental Protection Agency charged that Volkswagen had intentionally programmed diesel engines to activate emission controls only during laboratory testing. With this devise, a car will be tested around the clock, outside the lab.
But the costs (100,000 euro) are high, and there is skepticism. “I doubt if they will use it,” says Ruessel. “They try to do what is necessary, but I’m not sure if they really go the whole way. They, should, but I think profit is luring,” and they may sometimes look the other way.