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In the News: Business of Auto: Concept car stars are fading

In the News: Business of Auto: Concept car stars are fading

Massive investment in futuristic one-offs, and pace of technological change, disrupting the darlings of the auto show

FEBRUARY 23, 2016

Ask most people on the showroom floor during next month’s Vancouver International Auto Show why they’re there and chances are they’ll say to check out the new vehicles.

Maybe so.

But the unabashed stars of any auto show have long been concept cars, those wild and fantastical glimpses into the future that hint at what we’ll be driving in the coming decades.

Next year, marks the 80th anniversary of the world’s first concept car, the legendary Buick Y Job created by Harley Earl, the visionary responsible for the Chevrolet Corvette and those huge Cadillac tail fins of the Fifties.

The media in 1938 immediately hailed the Y-Job as the “Car of the Future,” a statement that in many ways proved true. The sleek roadster previewed features that would become common throughout the industry, including power windows, flush-mounted door handles, disappearing headlamps, and a concealed convertible top. The sleek roadster was a landmark of automotive design, and established the ‘concept car’ as the vehicle for automakers’ to envision the future.

In the most basic sense, a concept car is developed more on technological and design advances than on commercial viability. Because of this, concept cars through the decades have captured the motoring public’s imagination with spaceship-like influences and futuristic power sources.

And with auto shows being the coming out party for concept cars, the public attending a show is always keen to search out the concepts. Particularly the kids.

But according to Vancouver International Auto Show general manager, that could be changing.

“In 2014, at the L.A. Auto Show, there were concept cars everywhere you went,” Jason Heard noted. “At the 2015 show, there were very few. Instead, it was all about what’s coming to market.”

According to Heard, such cycles are not unusual, but he does sense a coming trend away from concept cars in general, noting that many automakers are questioning the investment required in time, resources and money to create a concept car.

Producing a concept car begins with rough sketches and progressing to computer-created detailed blueprints often created on computer. Then it’s on to moulding the car in industrial Plasticine, more commonly referred to as modelling clay, which can be moulded into shape, then hardened, painted and shellacked to look like an operational vehicle. Such scale-model concept vehicles may cost less than $100,000 to produce, however the cost of developing a full-sized clay concept car for a major automaker is generally greater than $100,000 and can be as high as $300,000.

A non-working mock-up of a concept car is often adequate for display at auto shows, but to make a concept car that can actually works, automakers often use the drivetrain from an existing model.

“In most cases these days, the technology and design in concept cars of late don’t make it into the commercial models, so we’re starting to see fewer and fewer of them,” he says.

That’s because most of the cutting-edge vehicle advances these days are in on-board technologies, not sheet metal design. Given the speed in which those technologies change, in the time it takes to envision, design and create a concept car from scratch, the showcased technology is often out of date by the time the car is ready to roll out at a show.

Also, when it comes to ‘futuristic’ power sources, the future in many ways is already here. You can walk into a dealership in B.C. today and drive out with an electric- and even a hydrogen-powered vehicle.

“Back in the Nineties, automotive technology wasn’t changing at the pace it is today, so designers could create a concept car that looks ahead a decade or so,” Heard says.

The very notion of profitability in the automotive industry is based on economies of scale, so making one vehicle that will never be copied — or for that matter even sold as the majority of concept cars are destroyed after they’ve fulfilled their auto show lifespan — is losing favour with many automakers.

That’s not to say they still aren’t glimpsing into the future.

Heard said that increasingly automakers are showcasing their new technologies — such as navigation, cameras and device connectivity — at events like the annual; Consumers Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The final tally isn’t in yet for the concept cars scheduled to be on the floor in Vancouver, but as of now, there is just a handful, and none of those of the mind-blowing variety. Instead, they simply look like pre-production models.

The Ford Raptor Concept looks like a beefed up F-150; and the Buick Avenir concept and Infinity Q60 concept each look like luxury sport sedans you could find in a Metro Vancouver dealership showroom today.

So if concept cars are no longer the stars of auto shows, what are?

“We’re starting to see a big push on pre-production vehicles, like the Lincoln Continental concept that has recently been rolled out as a production model,” said Heard.

The declining role of concept cars is also forcing show managers to re-think the auto show experience.

Heard feels the aftermarket and modified vehicle booths at the Vancouver show are filling the void.

“They may not have the next technologies packaged up in one concept car-like vehicle, but if you talk to them they can show you different aspects of tomorrow’s technology today.”

In other words, instead of gazing on a fantastical vehicle that you might be driving in 10-years time, visitors to next month’s show at the Vancouver Convention Centre will be able to walk away from the show with information about seemingly futuristic technology they can order now.

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