For decades, we've always looked either to the East (Japan, Korea), or to the West (US, Europe) for the future of the automotive industry. But perhaps it's time we started looking North to China.
There's very good reason to hedge the automobile's future on China. It's the largest automobile market in the world. And pretty soon, it could also become the largest automobile maker in the world.
A recent visit to the city of Shanghai, host of the 2019 Auto Shanghai (Shanghai International Auto Show) shows just how far ahead the country already is in the automotive game.
Despite being a relatively new market for automobiles, congested cities like Shanghai are already employing vehicle acquisition restrictions, a license plate embargo, and substantial government subsidies for hybrid and electric car purchase. The result is a market ripe for the latest electric models, with tech savvy drivers demanding the most integrated vehicle available.
Join us as we take a look at what the Shanghai Auto Show has to offer and how their trends may eventually influence the world.
Electric or nothing
Tightening emissions regulations around the world may be responsible for the bumper harvest of turbo-fed cars in the market, but in China, it's already passe. Major cities like Shanghai and Beijing have imposed a sort of license plate embargo, similar to Singapore's COE, which limits the number of vehicles that can be registered in a city. For hyrbid or electric cars, that process is greatly expedited.
As such, many car buyers living in large cities now prefer electrified vehicles. In response, a large number of the vehicles displayed at Auto China were electrified versions of current offerings, if not entirely new electric models.
BYD's booth revealed electric versions of its entire lineup. Lynk & Co., one of China's up and coming electric car makers showed off production versions of their three electric cars. Karma expanded its lineup to three electric cars. Several more new brands were present with their own electric concepts.
No more side mirrors
Side and rearview mirrors may soon be a thing of the past. A large number of the vehicles on display boasted of cameras where mirrors are typically mounted. In the case of G-Tech's Kangaroo hyper SUV — an electric sports car with adjustable vehicle height — mirrors are nowhere to be seen. Instead, a plethora of cameras constantly watch the vehicle's surroundings. The same can be said for Welmeister's Concept SUV. Their video feed is then stitched together and displayed in a broad LCD screen for a panoramic view of what's around the car.
A vehicle's dashboard and center console can sometimes be daunting, particularly in modern cars with a whole suite of features. That's about to change if the cars revealed at the Shanghai Auto Show are anything to go by. Blame it on Tesla - the tablet size center console is taking off. Pretty soon, it could take over the car's entire interior.
Throughout the auto show, cars on display proudly showed off this key interior feature. Large floating displays served as the main interface to the vehicle's entertainment, climate and comfort settings. There were many iterations from using just one massive touchscreen LCD screen on the console, to several smaller touchscreens scattered throughout the dashboard to control various interior functions. They're controlled with a variety of gestures too, from the typical tap, to pinch to zoom, and even drag functions.
You can say goodbye to the instrument cluster as we know it. These have now been rendered obsolete by broad screens stretching across the driver's side. With LCD screens, car makers can allow drivers to customize displays, providing a larger view of a map for navigation, snipped from a driver's favorite social media site, or the conventional readouts if desired.
Another distinct addition is online connectivity. Like the rest of the world, social media is a very important part of a customer's life. Despite the lack of Facebook and Google-owned social media apps, the Chinese market is still very much addicted to the net thanks to services like Baidu and WeChat.
We're not quite sure how they integrate into the vehicle. Yet if our recent review of the BAIC M60 is anything to go by, there could be vehicle-optimized versions of these social media services, with the necessary anti-distracted driving precautions in place. It's highly possible that electronic payment services like WeChat and Alipay are also integrated into these infotainment systems for seamless toll collection.
Their own identity
Admittedly, our past impression of the Chinese auto market was one rife with copyright infringement. However, this year, that's a concern that's definitely fading away. In many cases, the showcased vehicles presented their own unique styling, some even far more attractive or intriguing than their eastern or western counterparts.
There are unique collaborations, like Leapmotor and Razer, that we could only wish for from more mainstream brands. Even buying a vehicle is radically changing, with a few brands adopting Tesla's boutique-style showroom as opposed to the conventional cold and corporate look we're used to.
Qiantu's showroom and coffee shop offers more space to lounge around, browse a good book or have a conversation than showcasing the vehicle itself and any associated apparel or paraphernalia.
Of course, there are also a few heavily-inspired cars out there. Though thankfully, their flattery no longer emulates the original as much. There's still that “nod” to the original, be it in the choice of color, a particular grille, or perhaps even the shape of a fender, but that's as far as the similarities go these days. There will be a hodgepodge of bits and pieces taken from various sources but very rarely was there a complete carbon copy.
If the Shanghai Auto Show has taught us anything, it's that China is no longer following trends, but beginning to set the trends themselves.