The future of the world’s biggest motor show in Frankfurt has been thrown into doubt after a weekend of environmental protests disrupted the industry’s gala event.
Bernhard Mattes, the outgoing chief of the German car lobby the VDA, which organises the gathering, refused to commit to a return to the city, which has hosted the event since 1951.
Mr Mattes hinted that the current format, where brands promote their new car models, might soon become obsolete amid calls from local politicians for the show to be transformed into an event that focuses solely on eco-friendly transport.
“We have made several changes already,” he said. “It’s not about how many cars, how many visitors, how many square metres. First we have to agree on a fresh concept, then decide [in which city] to display this best.”
Thousands of demonstrators on bicycles and on foot brought parts of Frankfurt to a standstill on Saturday, the day the show opened to the general public, as they called for a “climate-friendly transport revolution” and a ban on gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.
Mr Mattes announced his resignation on Thursday, when the show was officially opened by German chancellor Angela Merkel. The opening was disrupted by Greenpeace activists, who stormed the main stage, unveiling anti-car banners.
The head of the VDA gave no reason for his sudden departure, but it comes as the bosses of Germany’s big car groups are said to be dissatisfied with the increase in political and social hostility towards the industry, particularly as they are stepping up efforts to sell more electric cars ahead of new rules on CO2 emissions next year.
Porsche’s chief executive, Oliver Blume, whose company unveiled its first battery-powered sports car, the Taycan, said last week that while the car industry was “part of the problem, it is also part of the solution”.
He added: “It’s just the beginning, but electrification provides many opportunities for the future.”
On the sidelines of the show, the newly installed chief executive of Daimler, Ola Källenius, said his company had done a lot to make vehicles more efficient, but was “also focused on what the customers want”.
But Tina Velo, an organiser of the protest group “Sand in the Gearbox”, which sought to blockade the event on Sunday, said “electric cars are far less ecological than the car industry is assuming”.
“What they present here is not the model of the future,” she added. “All the innovations are coming now from California, China, they are much more advanced, and the German car industry is coming way too late.”
On Sunday, the German Economic Institute in Cologne published analysis showing that the country’s car industry had filed almost half of all patents in the past year, up from about 30 per cent a decade earlier, while innovations from other sectors of German industry had dropped significantly.
“Without the motor vehicle industry, the patent performance of the German economy would have declined in recent years,” said economist Oliver Koppel. The report also revealed a shift in applications from the car companies, from patents for combustion technologies to digitisation and electrification.