At Frankfurt car show, industry in throes of reinvention

Estelle PEARD, Tangi QUEMENER
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That's when your old car doesn't seem so great anymore

Automakers descended on Frankfurt Tuesday to show off their latest innovations at the glitzy International Motor Show (IAA), even as the spectre of tough new environmental rules and a string of no-shows took some of the shine off the event.

On the surface, there is nothing but good news at the IAA: the European car industry can boast of five years of non-stop growth, projected to continue this year, and its 12.6 million employees on the Old Continent.

For the next 12 days, almost 1,000 exhibitors will be jostling for attention at the German financial capital's convention centre, fanning out over an area the size of 27 football pitches.

Europe's top industry showcase, which opened with two days of media previews on Tuesday, will feature 50 carmakers, a string of parts suppliers and internet giants like Facebook and Google.

And Germany's VDA car industry federation promises some 228 new models will make their global debut during the IAA, many of them the urban 4x4s that sprang from nowhere to claim 30 percent of European new car sales over the past 15 years.

But away from the gleaming chassis, high-tech presentations and optimistic keynote speeches, warning lights are blinking on the dashboard of an industry that remains key to Europe's economic health.

- German titans go electric -

The auto industry has yet to atone fully for the "dieselgate" emissions cheating controversy, with suspicion spreading beyond Germany's Volkswagen group -- the first domino to fall in 2015.

Fairgoers headed into the convention centre Tuesday were given a stark reminder of the scandal by a group of Greenpeace protesters carrying banners that read "The oil age is ending", as they stood beside an upright blue VW car made to look like it had crashed nose-first into the pavement.

Auto bosses will be closely listening to a Thursday opening speech from Chancellor Angela Merkel -- who insists at election rallies that she is still "fuming" about the emissions trickery.

As the industry stares down potential diesel bans in cities and compensation claims, executives have taken refuge in grand promises of an electric and hybrid future.

German titans Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler all announced far-reaching electric vehicle programmes in the run-up to the IAA, hoping to hit ambitious hybrid and all-electric car sales targets with a flood of new models by the mid-2020s.

VW's chief of strategy, Thomas Sedran, said the automaker hoped to persuade drivers to go electric with cars that had a range of over 500 kilometres (300 miles) and cost under 30,000 euros.

"Customers won't have to worry anymore that they won't make it home, or to the office, or wonder about where the nearest charging station is," he told reporters.

But in the electric arena too, a shadow hangs over the progress, as gung-ho US entrepreneur Elon Musk's Tesla Motors steals the spotlight from slower-moving European competitors.

Along with Nissan, Peugeot, Volvo and Fiat, Tesla has shunned this year's IAA, months after the first of its keenly-awaited Model 3 cars rolled off the production line.

The no-shows come as carmakers increasingly balk at the cost of exhibiting at industry shows, which can run into the millions of dollars, preferring to organise their own launches or appear at electronics fairs like the CES in Las Vegas.

Not to be outdone in the high-tech department however, many stands at the IAA on Tuesday offered peeks under the bonnet with augmented reality glasses, or virtual reality tours of manufacturers' glossy visions of the future of driving.

For car enthusiasts looking for more real-world action, high-end SUVs glided up impossibly steep ramps as demonstrators took off-road fans on white-knuckle test drives.

- Driving bans -

As concerns about pollution grow, time is running out for manufacturers to get electric, hybrid, and other alternatives to the internal combustion engine right -- and to get consumers to share in the excitement.

Britain and France have already vowed they will ban fossil fuel motors from 2040.

And in a surprise weekend announcement just before the IAA, China announced it was mooting its own ban, although officials have not named a date.

The move comes after protracted wrangling between Beijing, carmakers and western governments over plans for an electric vehicle quota in the world's largest car market -- a move that would favour China's home-grown firms.