The 2021 Shanghai auto show had the dubious honour of being the only international auto show in the 2021 international show calendar to-date. There has been no Geneva, New York is delayed, Frankfurt has gone, and it seems doubtful that Munich will be fully realised given the status of the pandemic in Europe. Even the Las Vegas consumer electric show (CES) this year was virtual…
The first full scale international auto show in over a year - Shanghai 2021 had a clear feeling of a business-as-usual in a way that the postponed 2020 show did not. Despite being impossible to attend from overseas, it was down in attendance only by 20%, and had the same number of exhibitors and new model debuts — according to official statistics — and it had a far more exuberant feel than we’ve seen at an auto show since 2020.
As ever, Shanghai presents many new cars and much variety within them (if maybe less so than before). But if there is one stand-out design trend this year, it is how we are seeing so many dedicated electric cars on dedicated electric platforms that are centre-stage products — no longer are new electric car designs niche models with extreme designs for 'early-adopters'.
Headline examples are from Germany with the ID.6 in particular, but also the Audi Q4 e-tron (far closer to ICE Audi designs that the ID-series cars from Volkswagen are to their ICE designs), and even the Mercedes EQS that is distinct in its proportion but fundamentally not an elitist design as underscored by the way its (optional) 3D star pattern grille broadens its appeal.
The new Toyota bZ4X, Lincoln Zephyr Reflection, ArcFox Alpha S, Zeekr 001, and Xpeng P5 also sit within this quietly dominating design trend.
Whilst many new production design debuts evidence the fast pace of the electric car's design evolution as it moves to the centre stage of the car market, the 2021 Shanghai auto show was perhaps most marked not so much for what it showed, as for what it didn’t.
As well as many brands not opening the doors of their most exciting designs, they were not telling the stories of these designs either — companies’ media presentations covered the headlines of their technology and sales ambition, not how what they offered was unique in nature, or derived from a particular ethos that they had (Nio’s battery swapping approach, and Polestar’s ‘design towards zero’, excepted).
In Shanghai we didn’t hear about design, despite over 60 new production and concept designs being what the 800,00 show visitors could see (and touch), and the technology underpinning them all being so similar. Designs were present, but mute, with no explanation as to what they were, yet alone any curation describing how and why they had come to be. But perhaps most remarkably, for a show during a time of global pandemic where no foreign media could attend, there was a paucity of imagery presented by car brands to more widely decimate the designs, and to fundamentally unlock design value.
When a good show car can cost a million dollars and create publicity worth ten times that, this lack of communication was not just a frustration for the design community, but a significant commercial oversight. We don’t know exactly why this happened, but have an idea that there are at least these three reasons: a lack of awareness within many brands of the value that design brings to brand; break-neck development schedules and a lack of resources that preclude the ability to create communication collateral; a lack of considered design narrative or reason-to-be for individual designs. And maybe a fourth reason too: that several companies produce show cars primarily for the status their senior managers perceived they convey to them in the eyes of their competitors, if not in the eyes of (local) government representatives too.