Electric car, the clash of civilizations

The electric car, a reveal of economic patriotism?

What does an electric Chinese car look like? Another Chinese electric car. Especially if it’s an SUV.

An observation made by many observers, as long as they are interested in the abundant electricity market in the country in the Middle Kingdom, and even more so if they have had the opportunity to survey the bays at some motor show during the last three more year.

Lynk & Co 01, MG Marvel R, Aiways U5, XPeng G9, NIO ES8, Li One, GAC Aion LX Plus and others all have a bit of a family resemblance, whether it’s the line with the tapered front end without grille and bar-shaped LED lights or the decor and layout around a large central Tesla touch. screen, integrated with more or less success on a necessarily minimalist dashboard (the term “dashboard” has never been as appropriate as since the arrival of the Model 3).

Design codes and technical design codes, which are not there by chance and which, in addition to the effect of fashion, on the one hand respond to budgetary constraints (the central screen is probably a source of monumental savings) and on the other to an obligation of efficiency if in fact, it is possible to make an SUV a little more aerodynamic and lightweight than a Norman enclosure that would have swallowed an entire family of anvils.

China, from cut-and-paste to innovation

But it’s not just that. Chinese industry is gradually getting rid of its image as a factory in the world with prejudices about counterfeiting and copying discount which he was until recently accused of, in order to gradually build a real reputation in the field of creation and innovation. This had already been the case for a few years in high technology, where solid and innovative leaders quickly pushed themselves (Xiaomi, Huawei, Oppo, Lenovo, TCL, DJI drones, etc.), and it seems that the car sector, if growth is driven (or more or less kept liquid) by electricity, suit follows.

Except that this country does not have the design culture that we know in Europe, or more broadly in the West. It is far from me to say that there are no skilled designers in China or that their cars are ugly. Simply put, their graphic codes are more of a choice of need for a clientele that mostly cares about our sense of aesthetics and haute couture. As we have seen recently, China is turning away from the European model, and it is all the more striking among the younger generations, the famous millennials, totally imbued with digital technologies, and for whom everything passes through screens and apps. Basically, the “WOW” effect will be triggered more by the quality of a touch screen, the precision of an autonomous driving system or the spaceship-like stripping of a cabin than by the line or performance. Admittedly, this is an observation that can also be made among young Europeans or Americans who discovered the car with Tesla, but which is certainly even more significant among young Chinese if their entire lives are regulated by the smartphone and a few applications that allow you to do EVERYTHING. And without which nothing can be done.

In other words, for the choice of a car in China, it is first the technology, the screen and apps, then the autonomy, and finally, possibly, the look and performance. It’s a bit caricatured, of course, as some European premium brands like Porsche or Audi still score well there, but it’s primarily about the top of the range … and internal combustion engines. In terms of electricity, the mass seems to be over: For the domestic market, it is the many local builders who lead the dance, with new brands that are mostly unknown here, and especially brands born with and around electricity, including office studios therefore start from at a blank page, giving the benefit of not being “polluted by experience,” as one of my former marketing professors put it.

In Europe, the best soups are believed to be made in old pots

On the other hand, the old Europe, which experienced some errors in the beginning in terms of electrification, relied first on the existing one to design its first electric models. To my knowledge, no manufacturer started from scratch, and all relied on proven platforms and existing technologies to develop their first electrical models, which for the most part – at least in the beginning – were only variations of thermal models, with the possible exception of Zoé, which benefited from the launch from its own platform, and again it was customized from Clio.

And although things have evolved today, and dedicated platforms are evolving at a rapid pace, European manufacturers have not really put a line under their history and their thermal heritage, made of design, performance and ‘Art of living’. Thus, many electric models are still just one more line in a catalog where the same thermal and hybrid range rubs off. some examples? Want some here: Fiat 500, Mini, Smart, Peugeot 208, Citroën C4, Renault Twingo, Volvo XC40, BMW i4, so many models that exist side by side in thermal and electrical versions.

Ultimately, it is perhaps within the VW Group that the conversion to electricity is the most radical, with the construction in the mid-2010s of real dedicated platforms giving rise to “real” electrical news. , such as. Porsche Taycan, Audi e-tron and e-tron GT and even the ID.3 4- and 5-series from Volkswagen. Even if we tease, we can without going too far say that the Audi e-tron Q4 looks like an electric version of the Q3 or Q5. Except that it is manufactured on its own 100% electric MEB platform. And Bam.

Models that, however, have preserved the DNA of those brands, as Taycan develops both the 911 and the Panamera, and VW ID.3 is seen by some as the “electric Golf”.

So do Europeans right or wrong not to cleanse the table from the past? It’s hard to imagine that with the funds at their disposal, they have not invested in a few market research that governs their product strategy. The European consumer is not the Chinese consumer. Firstly, the average age of a new car buyer is much higher here than in China (52 compared to 36!) And therefore probably sensitive to the respect for a certain tradition found in the line and especially the interior design, as even in the latest models , remains relatively classic, except that also there the screens have replaced the good old analog meters.

Desperately looking for new brands

Are European manufacturers guardians of the temple of the car? Maybe since, with the exception of exotic brands (Rimac?), Nothing entirely new has really emerged in recent years. However, new brands are not only China’s prerogative. If we look at the American side, Silicon Valley’s unlimited financing capacity has allowed the emergence of new builders who are somehow trying to move from status as start-ups to status as credible and solid industrial people. One thinks, of course, of Tesla, which showed the voice (sometimes a little strewn with pitfalls) in the wake of which engulfed Lucid, Rivian and other Fishermen, though the game seems far from won for the brave challengers. In Europe, no Lucid, Rivian, Tesla or Aiways.

What remains is the case of the Koreans, who advance their peasants discreetly and quietly, and whose first entry into all-electric is apparently synonymous with success, both technically and commercially, but above all in terms of receiving the public and the coast. … love for their models, whether pioneers like the Hyundai Kona or Kia e-Niro or their prestigious offspring named Ioniq 5 or EV6. Manufacturers who ultimately represent a kind of connection between China’s technological radicalism and a certain European tradition. So high-tech cars, but with a soul and a real pencil stroke that sets them apart from the crowd.

And then there is the youngest, a challenger full of ambition (and means), who is neither Chinese nor Korean, European or American, but who had the good idea to team up with many players and have his cars designed by Pininifarina and Torino , I mean the Vietnamese VinFast. No history, a first entry into the car in early 2018 in technical collaboration with BMW, and three electric SUVs arriving in Europe in the coming months, which do not look like Chinese production, and which rather have a mouthful.

Europe, China, everyone at home?

Chinese customers turn away from European manufacturers? Maybe. It could be that European customers, or at least some of them, are doing the same with Chinese manufacturers. For the sake of “economic patriotism”, but also for more political and ethical reasons, linked to human rights and our perception of democracy, freedom of expression and respect for the environment. Just read some comments here about a new Chinese model … or even a French car built in China.

The future of the car will be electric, it is now a safety, but it must now count with yet another player in the catalog, China. The showdown has already begun with the US and Europe, and we are witnessing a real break in the approach to markets with demographics and affinities that may reshape the car landscape in the coming years. Add to that a touch of protectionism on both sides and different economic rules depending on the region and you have a perfect cocktail of economic warfare but of a new kind where everyone would stay at home. A kind of de-globalization of the car, with completely different styles and approaches depending on whether you drive in Asia, America or Europe …

Or how buying a car could also become a political gesture of withdrawal. That said, the same was said in the 1980s with the advent of Japanese cars. We know the rest … Not sure the positions are sufficient to fight an impending wave.

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