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Audi presents its grandsphere concept at the 2021 IAA Mobility, in Munich.Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

The first major European car show since the pandemic proved to be part celebration, part experiment and part public reckoning for the German auto industry.

After hosting the event since 1951, Frankfurt is no longer home to the Internationale Automobil-Austelling, or IAA, the big German car show. This year, for the first time, the show rebranded as IAA Mobility – meaning it included e-bikes and e-scooters – and moved to Munich. The Bavarian capital is the home of BMW, 80 kilometres from Audi’s headquarters and just a couple hours on the Autobahn from Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. Here, in the heartland of the German auto industry, these companies all tried hard to convince the public they’ve turned a corner; the idea was both to show the industry is finally serious about embracing a cleaner, greener future, and to get customers excited about it.

To that end, instead of being cloistered in some convention centre, automakers built open-air pavilions – temples to their brands – in the historic city centre. Across the street from the Neoclassical-style Bavarian State Opera house, for example, BMW built a gardenlike space in which to show off its i Vision Circular concept car. The compact electric vehicle was designed to use as few materials and parts as possible, making it less energy-intensive to build and easier to recycle.

Also in the BMW garden were some new e-bikes and e-scooter concepts, including the i Vision AMBY, which uses geofencing to set a top speed depending on whether you’re riding it in a bike lane or on a road. It looks like a bicycle but can hit 60 km/h on roads that allow it. As it stands, such a machine would be illegal pretty much everywhere. “Those [concept] bikes are a little bit provocative because you have so many restrictions on two-wheeled mobility,” said Frank Weber, the BMW board member in charge of development. The company used this concept to show regulators what sort of new electric mobility solutions might be possible in the future, he explained.

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The BMW i Vision AMBY. The e-bike uses geofencing to set a top speed depending on whether you’re riding it in a bike lane or on a road.Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

A short walk or e-scoot from BMW was Audi’s pavilion. The open-air building, created just for show, looked like something you’d see at the Venice Biennale. Inside, the company’s head designer was giving the public a tour of Audi’s new grandsphere self-driving luxury EV concept. Amar Vaya, an exterior designer who worked on the project, enjoyed watching the public’s reactions to his work. “This is the best thing you can do,” he said of the new format for the IAA. “It’s accessible to everybody now,” he added. “Children have the most honest reactions; they see [the car] and love it, or not.”

Next door to Audi at the Porsche stand, ex-Formula 1 driver Hans-Joachim Schtook was promoting a new line of watches in front of an enthusiastic audience. Behind him was Porsche’s new Mission R electric race car concept.

Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz also showed new EVs while Hyundai Motor Group announced it would double-down on plans to make hydrogen-powered cars happen. By 2030, the South Korean company wants to offer hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) that are comparable in price to pure electric vehicles.

While some major companies – including Stellantis, Toyota and Honda – chose not to attend, the companies that were in Munich were almost all announcing new emissions-reducing commitments, new electric vehicles or some other kind of low-carbon e-mobility product.

“Our German automotive industry used to be rather reluctant to fully embrace e-mobility in the past,” said outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel at the opening of the IAA. Four years ago, she said, almost all of the electric cars presented by German companies were just concepts, but now there are roadgoing EVs on every show stand.

The car industry is changing, investing billions in EVs, but for some the change hasn’t come fast enough. Greenpeace and other environmental activist groups staged several demonstrations during the show, blocking a section of Autobahn and confronting the CEO of VW Group. “For 30 years, [the auto industry] has prevented any significant decrease in CO2 emissions from vehicles,” the environmental groups wrote in a joint statement. While individual vehicles are generally much less polluting than their predecessors, total emissions from passenger vehicles have continued to climb in Canada and elsewhere thanks to the continued supply of and demand for gas-hungry SUVs. Greenpeace and others called for an immediate phase-out of internal combustion-engine vehicles, among other things.

“The future of mobility is something that indeed concerns all of us, which is why it’s so important that the IAA […] is not only holding debates with its traditional customers and suppliers, but also goes into the heart of cities and debates with general public and allows them to share in this discussion,” Merkel said.

Instead of people going to the car show, the car show came to the people and, judging by the crowds, most of them appreciated it. The free open-air displays in the heart of the city were symbolic of an industry trying to shed its dirty past and come clean, slowly. Such displays of the eco-friendly ambition invite added scrutiny, which is something the industry will simply have to get used to for the foreseeable future.

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