In the last 20 years, when the cell phone went from being a collapsible soap bar to a crystal slab that conquers the world, one of the sad changes that I have witnessed closely has been the increasingly weak influence of Europe. Where once your phone choice was between Nokia, Ericsson, Siemens and others from the old continent, today there is only one of those brands, and is being operated under license. The truth of the mobile device market now is that Europe is the agglomeration of the United States between China and the United States, which are the current industrial and economic superpowers. Three of the five largest phone manufacturers in the world operate mainly in China, while the most profitable duo of Apple and Samsung consider the United States its most important market.
The same is not true of the automobile industry. At least not yet. My experience of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona a week ago and the Geneva Motor Show this week showed the strong contrast between the automotive and telephone industries. Today's cars are like telephones two decades ago: on the verge of a fundamental change, led by large European companies, but surrounded by uncertainty about the exact shape and speed of the change to come.
When I attended MWC, it exuded a distinctive air of being out of sync with most of the manufacturers' product programs. LG brought out a cynical rebadging of their V30, Huawei and Lenovo laptops instead of phones, and HTC had nothing new. The telephone companies simply did not seem bothered to make a big appearance at the MWC. Compare that with the wild and wonderful week of Geneva that has just presented the great concept of Lagonda by Aston Martin, the fiery Concept Two of Rimac, the even faster Chiron Sport by Bugatti, the SUV I-Pace cheaper than a Tesla by Jaguar and the Volvo built for the European V60 Wagon. Each of these companies is European, and each of these cars has been reserved (to a greater or lesser extent) specifically for Geneva, so it can make a big impression on the European scene.
On a personal level, being at the MWC made me feel that I was in the wrong place as a technology journalist in Europe. All the most exciting things, like Vivo's scandalous prototype without bevel with an emerging self-portrait camera, came from the west and east of my home continent. Amazon, Google and Apple lead the way to software and services enhanced by assistant, China is repeating at a ridiculous speed on the hardware side, and it seems that Europe is preparing for the trip. When the MWC happens, the exciting things are a matter of coincidence with existing plans between Chinese and American companies, not a deliberate effort to come and impress Europeans.
Using the journalist's hat of my car in Geneva, on the other hand, made me feel full of energy and vigor. This was where the absolute vanguard of automotive design and engineering was shown. Until the automobile industry has its iPhone moment, if it ever has one, it will continue to be names like Audi, BMW and Mercedes that will drive us and define our future mobility. Europe is relevant, influential and important for cars in a way that was once with telephones. Of course, many companies are now adapting their models and developing complete lines of cars only for the growing Chinese clientele, but European car buyers continue to have a great influence on what is manufactured and what is not. The Volvo V60 exists mainly due to the enduring popularity of trucks throughout Europe (and especially in the company's native Sweden).
Two massive exhibitions, two massively different vibrations.