Los Angeles and its Auto Show


The LA Auto Show press days came and went. As a car show, it is a weird hybrid event, certainly more than a regional auto show, yet still not recognized by most auto makers or the media as the international event it could and should be. California is, after all, the biggest car market in the US (accounting for one out of every ten vehicles), and many auto trends still start here. Most Asian companies have their headquarters here as well, and although engineering is mostly done in Michigan, the LA area has by far the highest concentration of car design studios in the world. Lastly, but very importantly, any media person you ask would admit that they would rather spend a couple of warm November days in Los Angeles than enjoying Detroit in early January (although things are not as bad at NAIAS since they moved, a few years ago, their nonsensical January 2nd opening day to mid January).

Back in 2007 and especially 2008, with Toyota (based in Torrance, near LAX) taking over as biggest car manufacturer in the world, the Chinese market making another giant Leap Forward, the Big Three drowning in debt, and a thriving EV start-up scene ready to take over, it looked like the time had come to move the only US-based international auto show from Detroit to Los Angeles.

Two years (and $60 Federal billion) later, with an invigorated Ford, a stumbling Toyota, a very successful government IPO, and Californian VCs starting to think that perhaps social media is an easier bet than green-tech, the LA Auto Show seems to be going back to its previous, almost there status.

On the EV front, there is no doubt that this is a transitional period. Green champion Schwarzenegger is out of the picture, and the lingering recession is still present, so the activity looked to me a bit subdued. After several years of increasing EV buzz, everyone seems to be taking a breather. Nevertheless, several themes where clearly noticeable:

  • Both Volt and Leaf were displayed as  production vehicles. The fact that both vehicles were present, but not overly so, only emphasized how far ahead of the game both GM and Nissan really are.
  • Representing the We-know-we-missed-the-boat-but-we-are-trying-hard were both Honda and Toyota. As much as I like the Fit, the EV version just made me yawn (and why, why the big EV sticker?). Arguably, its most interesting feature was the key fob with a battery charge indicator. The RAV4 EV doesn't even deserve a yawn, Tesla batteries or not. Why would anyone mix such a highly inefficient package with an electric powertrain is beyond me. But hey, if Porsche can put their reputation on the line creating the first sports SUV and succeed, I guess Toyota can try too. As far as I am concerned, SUVs are just like reality shows: they are popular, and they are here to stay, but that does not mean they deserve to be talked about.
  • Speaking of Porsche, here is how to make green technology cool. The energy recovery system in their racing 911 GT3 R Hybrid looked like something straight out of a Hollywood studio. Of course, if there is ever a production version of these things, it will all be covered in plastic (or leatherette).
  • The Mitsubishi i-MiEV was also there, making its US debut, looking worse every time I see it. The fact that the fantastic Fiat 500 was literally a few meters away didn't help matters for the poor little thing. Like the Fit, this one had decals too to spice it up.
  • Demonstrating what half a billion can get you (and quite frankly, what kind of founders both companies have), Fisker's stand was quite nice, while Coda's was more, well, subdued. Still, they both distinguished themselves as the only start-ups on the main floor, a quite important detail. My friend Mark has been sweating it in Finland the last few months, getting the final touches ironed out before the Karma production starts. Mark showed me around their first pre-production unit which (unfortunate paint job aside) looks as good as one would expect for such an expensive car.
  • Lastly, in the We-are-still-here camp, Tango, Wheego and X-Prize winners Li-ion Motors shared a small space downstairs. It is quite hard for a small company to participate in a show of this level (Tesla was not even there), so their effort should be admired. Unfortunately, their lower floor location meant they were surrounded by blinged-out Lambos and Bentleys: certainly not the right place to be, for many many reasons.

Perhaps a good use for a small DOE loan would be to separate EVs into a nicer, distinct area, since it's in everyone's interest (big guys included) to further remove the DIY stigma from the industry as quickly as possible.

Furthermore, properly displaying unconventional and/or clean technology vehicles, like they do now with small luxury brands Lotus and Aston Martin, would be a good way to move the show beyond its not-quite-there status. Vehicles like the GM-Segway Puma (which I know for a fact were in LA this week) could have been displayed as well, in a proper environment. With a relatively small investment, the LA Show could then perhaps make a leap and establish itself as the premier EV and alternative transportation show in the planet, something  Motor City would probably never be interested in.


Design PS:


[Image credit: GM]

My friend Jussi Timonen and the rest of the team at GM Advanced Design in North Hollywood tied for the win at the California Design Challenge competition. I worked with Jussi a few years on both the Hummer O2 and the OnStar Ant, two well received competition entries. Although the theme this year was not green per se, it was one of its closest cousins: lightness. You can see the rest of the GM proposal here.


[Image credit: GM]

Also from the old friend department comes this small Cadillac introduced at the show (Autoblog's picture gallery here). Short of producing their own version of the Volt platform (which I assume it will happen someday), this is the closest one can get to a responsible Cadillac. I was still at the studio when the project started, so it was great to see Niki and Gael's work on display. Niki Smart, by the way, is one of the most articulated designers you will ever find, and he elegantly explains the vehicle theme in this interview with Frances Anderton, host of KCRW's design and arquitecture radio program DnA.

After Niki's interview, keep listening for an interesting talk with Paul Taylor (around minute 11), deputy chief executive officer of the MTA, talking about the somewhat ironic LA-Beijing alliance and its shared efforts to reduce traffic (more info in this AP story via Yahoo-News).