Friday, September 6, 2013

European Automakers Hope Technology Can Lure Younger Buyers

With sales at their lowest level in two decades, auto industry managers gathering for the Frankfurt auto show next week will be doing their best to focus on shiny new technologies rather than on the European car market, which, in contrast to the thriving market in the United States, is in a terrible state.

The buzz at the show, which opens to the public on Wednesday, is likely to be about new battery-powered cars and vehicles that are able to drive themselves. Those are more cheerful topics than auto sales, which have fallen 20 percent in Western Europe since the financial crisis began in 2008 and are at their lowest level since 1993.

Only European carmakers with substantial sales in the United States or China — BMW, Mercedes and Volkswagen — have escaped relatively unscathed.

The emphasis on technology is more than just a distraction from market misery. Carmakers are desperate for ways to excite young buyers, who are increasingly apathetic about car ownership. The push toward cars that are rechargeable and loaded with software is part of a search to make automobiles as essential to young adults as smartphones. Otherwise, there is a big risk that auto sales may never reach their previous peaks even if the European economy keeps improving.

“There are products that are hipper for young people than cars,” said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, a professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen in northern Germany and an industry analyst. “The car companies are still using the old marketing pitch — more horsepower. That doesn’t speak to young people any more.”

Interest in battery-powered cars has faded after disappointing initial sales, but it could pick up again this year with the market introduction of the BMW i3. The vehicle has perhaps the most revolutionary new design by an established carmaker in years, not only because of its electric propulsion system but also because the passenger compartment is made of carbon fiber rather than steel, to save weight and extend the distance the car can travel between charges.

There is also speculation that Continental, a German parts supplier, will announce an alliance with Google next week to further develop self-driving cars. A spokesman for Continental, which will hold a news conference at the auto show on Tuesday, declined to comment.

As such initiatives illustrate, it is no longer enough for a car to take a person from one place to another without breaking down. A car must be green, so the owner does not feel guilty driving it. And being in the car should not interrupt the perpetual connectivity that many younger people take for granted.

BMW is going to extremes to make the i3 the most carbon-neutral car on the road. A wind turbine outside the BMW factory in Leipzig provides power for the i3 assembly line, and the carbon fiber for the passenger compartment comes from a factory in Washington State that uses hydropower. And of course the i3 itself has no tailpipe emissions (unless buyers choose a range-extender version that has a small gasoline motor).

With a price of about $42,000 in the United States, the i3 will be an option only for higher-end buyers when it arrives in showrooms by the middle of next year, though government incentives could lower the price by more than $7,000. But since BMW’s clientele already tends to be wealthy and urban, the company may be in a better position than other carmakers to find a market.

“What the mobile phone did for communication, electric mobility will do for individual mobility,” Norbert Reithofer, the chief executive of BMW, said during an introduction event for the i3 in New York in July.

Despite Mr. Reithofer’s enthusiasm, no one expects battery-powered cars to sell in large numbers soon, and certainly not to solve the industry’s deep-seated problems. About 77,000 electric vehicles were sold in the United States in the last 12 months, far more than in any other country, according to Roland Berger Strategy Consultants in Munich. That number, which includes cars like the Chevy Volt that have range-extender motors, is tiny compared with the 14.5 million cars of all types sold in the United States last year.

Modest expectations may also be in order for self-driving cars. Cars are coming on the market that can relieve drivers of some of the tedium of driving in traffic or on the highway. The latest edition of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, introduced this year, can steer and brake autonomously in traffic or on the autobahn.

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