Back in the 20th century, one of the main reasons people went to auto shows was to see the “dream machines” — wildly stylish, often futuristic takes on motoring that the automakers rolled out to get the world enthused about their brands.
These vehicles — which were inspired by everything from fighter jets to the great bespoke luxury vehicles of the pre-war period — were jaw-dropping eye candy that performed their role and then typically disappeared, never to be built.
In the early 21st century, this mad practice was modified, as automaker started to treat the car shows as places to showcase their vehicles to potential customers en masse. The dream cars became concept cars, and in a lot of case, those concepts ended up in production.
Want a recent example? Look no further than the Lincoln Continental, revealed as a concept at the 2015 New York auto show and now on sales; or the Ford GT supercar, the star of the 2015 Detroit auto show — the race car version won Le Mans in 2016, the road car is being delivered to its first buyers.
The concept-to-production pipeline has take some of the fizz out of the annual auto shows, but the dream cars of yesteryear have been replaced with the electric cars of today.
Electric cars — often wildly ambitious ones — are an easy way for automakers to sustain buzz around their brands. When Tesla was beginning its ascent, producing is should be pointed out EVs that were destined to be driven, not just looked at — automakers realised that they could piggyback on that and join Elon Musk’s sexy conversation about the future of mobility.
Electric cars aren’t as sexy as they used to be, and a large market for them hasn’t materialised; sales are currently only about 1% of the global total. But the buzz has shifted, from electric to self-driving. A car doesn’t have to be battery powered to drive itself. So what were seeing now is a bevy of new dream cars that have autonomous-driving capability, to go along with the electric thing.
The dreamiest dream cars
At CES in Las Vegas this week, we’re going to see plenty of highly conceptual EVs. Throughout 2016 and into the beginning of car-show circuit in the fall, we were treated to a steady drumbeat of announcements from both major automakers and upstarts about future EV investments, lineups, and products.
It’s a sign of the times. The obvious question — one that wasn’t ever asked of the old-school dream cars because everybody knew the answer — is, “Will any of these things ever get built?”
The short answer is no, but the short answer is actually too simplistic.
Throughout the world, automakers are under increasing pressure to make their vehicles more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly, even as they sell record numbers of gas-burning cars and trucks. None in the business wants to have more aggressive “green car” legislation foisted upon them, so they’re getting very proactive. Very conceptually proactive.
Consumers have short memories. We should have been up to our necks in electric cars by now. The major automakers were all making moves back before the financial crisis, and along with Tesla there were numerous startups.
Now it’s 2017 and the first wave of EVs — mainly compact vehicles with relatively short ranges — sit unsold. Teslas are the only exceptions, but even Tesla will have sold only about 80,000 vehicles in 2016.
Some automakers have an authentic commitment to production-ready EVs, but they’re taking more of a rubber-meets-the-road approach. GM pushed hard to get the Chevy Bolt launched in 2016. For just announced a massive investment in electric cars and hybrids.
GM and Ford aren’t too badly positioned, given that they’re already mass-market automakers and can offer relatively straightforward electric transportation. But BMW and Mercedes are in a different place: those carmakers need to propose EVs that fit with the brands’ luxury image. That makes their ideas even more dreamy.
With the action shifting to the mass-market, it could be more difficult in the coming few years to keep promoting futuristic dream-car ideas about EVs. At this point, to EVs to develop any meaningful market share, they don’t need out-there looking concepts — they need the VW Beetle of electrification, a cheap piece of basic transportation that will establish a truly significant buyership.
But the electric dream cars keep on coming. It’s harmless now, just as dream cars were harmless in the past. The problems will come when carmakers have to tell the public to wake up.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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