We were in LA last week for Automobility LA and the longstanding Auto show that followed. At its core it was much as previous years in format albeit in lesser form, and this year it was dwarfed by other events: the unveiling of the Ford Mustang Mach-E and Tesla’s polarising Cybertruck that were announced at separate events during the week.
Just as we have seen the major Auto shows in Europe — Paris and Frankfurt, and even Geneva — try to place emphasis away from being purely about the car, so LA is trying to stay relevant with Automobility LA; ’mobility’ being the broader, more future-facing, and more customer (not brand) centric term. And this was reflected with other micro-events, including CoMotion LA, popping up around the core show, that recognise that the utopian ideas that cemented the auto show in popular culture are now being discussed by politicians, scientists, and Silicon Valley techies. LA Mayor Garcetti announced the nation’s first private-public mobility coalition, Urban Movement Labs, during CoMotion LA. California also announced that they would stop buying ICE vehicles from OEMs who support Trump's emission rollbacks. The show anchored the time and place to be about mobility, in a way supported by the nearby unveilings of the Mach-E and Cybertruck. These are indicators that the times are not just changing, but have already changed.
In a hangar a block away from Tesla’s design centre, Ford unveiled their first dedicated electric car: the Ford Mustang Mach-E, the most significant LA reveal from the big three. Hardcore fans were fuming and called it sacrilege — Mustang has always meant Mustang — but we have a hunch that the masses will eat it up. The Cayenne faced a stronger reaction in a similar situation seventeen years ago, but Porsche hasn’t looked back. And the Mach-E is a homage, but also an entirely new car for Ford: the first mainstream brand response to the conceptually similar premium offers such as the I-Pace, EQC and E-tron — yet it also moves on from these designs with a true fastback silhouette and less visual mass. The markedly defined muscles of the side body are also distinct in this new EV space: handsome and refined, they reach across the Atlantic to speak more of Ford Europe than you might expect from a Mustang name-plate, which may unlock further potential.
Meanwhile, the most outlandish vehicle debut of the 21st history also happened outside of the auto show. The long anticipated Tesla Cybertruck was revealed to an audience that went quiet in shock and awe. The internet immediately lit up in a frenzy with: ‘Musk has finally lost his mind’, ‘this is what happens when you have a CEO who smokes pot’, and our favourite: ‘this is the car we all drew as a child’. The design is more polarising than any mass-market vehicle in living memory. Indeed, the best parallel for the Cybertruck comes from the art world: when Pablo Picasso first displayed the now famous painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon to acquaintances in his studio, the nearly universal reaction was shock and revulsion; Matisse angrily dismissed the work as a hoax. This new ‘cubist’ style deconstructed the human form to a point of abstraction. We now take abstract art for granted, but it was avant-garde and ludicrous in 1908; it wasn’t until decades later that the painting was regarded as a masterpiece. The market is already saturated with plenty of ‘normal’ trucks; the mere (potential) existence of the Cybertruck is a feat in itself.
Musk kept reiterating how the design was heavy influenced by Blade Runner and wedge cars from the seventies - the Lotus Esprit in particular, although we think the Citroen Karin concept and the Low-poly car from United Nude might best encapsulate the inspiration behind Cybertruck. Much of the surfacing is crude, but that is missing the point: it is a defiant reaction to the many fussy but boring trucks of the 21st century. Do we think it make sense for Tesla? Is this a new approach that will reset the automotive design trajectory? No and no. But it does highlight how rare this type of singular boldness has become in automotive design. Only a maverick with power could realise this, and the Cybertruck is a reminder that we only have one of those in the industry today.
Whilst the first electric Ford and the world’s most shocking pick-up usurped LA-Show debuts, it’s notably that the massively impressed Canoo was in LA for its show debut, and that the Hyundai Vision-T concept (following Mercedes and BMW in they use of ‘Vision’…) and the Kia Seltos designs debuted at the show amongst others.
Even though the LA Auto Show is no longer the be all and end all of mobility in November, it is still the centre-piece to an array of automotive — or mobility — activities that could only come from this region. Car culture paved the way for Silicon Valley mobility startups to flourish, and the exciting place where these two worlds intersect, as evidenced perfectly by the Mach-E and the Cybertruck, is LA like no other place. Maybe the heart of the show will become more about celebrating the heritage of US car culture whilst continuing to cultivate an array of satellite events that speak to future mobility solutions. Arguably the show is uniquely placed to make such a concept fly and to reassert LA as car design central again.