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An electric future dawns in Geneva

It’s a funny one…. For those of us out there who deem ourselves to be true petrolheads, electric cars have always been a pub-banter punch line. Milk floats, mobility scooters and short range wheezy abominations like the God-awful G-Wiz.

Truth is though, times, they are a-changing and it’s not just the sock-and-sandal, vegan bearded types with an aversion to soap that Electric appeals to. Actually; so my ten year old neighbour tells me, there is nothing cooler than a Tesla. It’s not just because we are constantly beating environmental ideals into the youth of today, and rightly so, but more what they can do.

In terms of looks, the Model S isn’t exactly radical, lost between Jaguars on the motorway, but the Model X with its gull wing doors, and flat faced front end, is a different matter entirely.

At home amongst the legion of SUV crossovers and MPVs it’s different enough to be obvious but too bulky to be sexy.

None of this is important though really. It’s what it can do that counts.

Tech, of course, is important. Buyers choose cars based on phone connectivity, and the likes of Tesla deliver. The iPad-esque centre stack is smart and uncluttered if not the best for eyes-on-road motoring; assuming you aren’t letting autopilot do its thing.

Tesla’s ace card though is its speed. It’s not quick by electric car standards…. It’s quick by supercar standards!

The combustion engine suddenly looks rather old fashioned, and here’s the rub. I love the sound and feel of an engine. The buzz you get with crackles and pops on lift off, the sonorous growl of a V8, the baleful shriek of a V12 or the whine of a Supercharger. I’m going to miss it.

The silence by comparison is eerie, but the instant wave of power and perception of speed is somehow amplified, a slingshot of torque pushing you in the back as you silently disappear into the distance. An electric motor punches from standstill and assuming you can get the power down, and the juice to supply it…and now we can… the possibilities for electric propose that the fast petrol-engined cars of today could end up looking like the lawnmowers of tomorrow; built as a novelty rather than a serious proposition. Once again, it’s speed that’s made the car sexy.

For all my nostalgia though, I don’t begrudge the electric car. Yes, it’s taken a while to get there, but despite a rough start, tech has meant that even entire race series are a viable proposition and it’s no wonder there’s so many here at Geneva rocking Duracell.

My twenty year old self would be shocked to hear me say it, but it is hybrid that gives me the biggest buzz. I’m not talking Prius, I’m talking P1; I’m thinking the use of electric motors cascading into hot hatches, torque vectoring and KERS-like boost, unlimited range and reasonable economy, but still with some noise. In the wake of diesel-gate it offers real world possibilities and that’s no joke.

From where I’m stood though the future seems to be both autonomous and electric, although there’s plenty of exotica on display here and more than one vision of the future.

Icona Nucleus
Icona Nucleus

A “self-driving living room, a luxury car, made more affordable by being able to do more for more people”, Samuel Chuffart, Icona’s Design Director, told us. With the need for a traditional cockpit absent, the car can pick-up the kids from school, let you work or sleep whilst commuting and also allow you to connect with each other whilst doing so.Perhaps one of the boldest is the Icona Nucleus, more living room than car. It’s a beauty this, designed to be focused around the occupants rather than just designed to seat them; looking more like the inside of a high end yacht. Its roomy too, really roomy – you could practically wonder around in the space, but it is the seating arrangement, all facing inwards that define the car. There are no controls, a shuttle to take you from A to B and onwards without the bother of driving.

Icona's Samuel Chuffart
Icona’s Samuel Chuffart

The outside, bold as it is with its incredible clam door, somehow finds itself as a secondary concern, plucked as it is from Sci-Fi futurism (See Demolition Man, I Robot and so on). It should be quick though, with motors powering each wheel pushing nearly 150bhp each and travelling over 700 miles between charges/refuels thanks to a trick hybrid hydrogen/electric system – assuming the road network and other cars can deal with this new-found power, we could well find ourselves getting to where we need to be faster and with as much convenience as your personal chauffeur driven pods can provide.

As much as I love the concept, and I do, there will undoubtedly be times when you find yourself wanting to take the wheel. Let’s face it, the boring motorway commute hardly stimulates the senses in the same way as threading your way through the Swiss mountains.

This poses another question for cars of the future.

Considering we could conceivably find ourselves within the next decade the weak-link in an otherwise precisely calculated computer-powered chain, what happens when analogue, lead footed chunks of meat want to take the wheel for old times’ sake?

Toyota's Concept-i
Toyota’s Concept-i

Toyota, presenting a range of futuristic tech seem to have the answer, “Manual Mode” appearing on the front of the AI empowered ‘Concept I’.

Although we’ve become accustomed to the vast range of accessible Toyota hybrids (thankfully in regular looking cars as well as Prius), other manufacturers seem slow in coming to the party. So, with a trio of cars it’s Volkswagen that raised more than a few eye-brows at Geneva.

VW I.D. Buzz
VW I.D. Buzz
VW I.D. Vizzion
VW I.D. Vizzion

Showcasing the ‘I.D.’ range, again electric and autonomous – with an anticipated launch date of 2022 the VAG platform uses a common chassis/battery/drivetrain architecture allowing a range of flexible body styles alongside 400+ mile range. Whilst the majority of the automotive press clambered over the newly revealed ID Vizzion, it was the Buzz that caught my eye; rocking a thoroughly retro Camper Bus style that added it to my ever-growing ‘want’ list.

VW Golf GTi in Race Spec
VW Golf GTi in race spec

Standing on the VW stand, suddenly the juxtaposition of other more ‘traditional’ cars seemed remarkably old fashioned, such as the sublime Golf GTI. Somehow, despite being real they seemed to be less relevant. Yes, we need better infrastructure, and, yes, the tech is only in its infancy, but standing there looking across the exhibition I felt like a man clinging on to my Walkman at the dawn of the iPod age.

For now though at least there is room for a grinning, lump of human hanging on to a steering wheel behind a bellowing V8, but make no mistake Electric is now right in the rear-view mirror and it won’t be long before it’s pushing for an overtake.

Michael Gates

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