Over the past 20 years, as the cellphone has transitioned from a buttoned-down soap bar to a world-conquering glass slab, one of the sad changes I’ve witnessed from up close has been the fading influence of Europe. Where once your choice of phone was among Nokia, Ericsson, Siemens, and others from the old continent, today only one of those brands remains, and it’s being operated under license. The truth of the mobile market now is that Europe is the flyover agglomeration of states between China and the US, who are the current industrial and economic superpowers. Three of the world’s five biggest phone manufacturers operate primarily in China, while the most profitable duo of Apple and Samsung both consider the United States their most important market.
The same is not true of the car industry. At least not yet. My experience of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona a week ago and the Geneva Motor Show this week showed the stark contrast between the phone and auto industries. Cars today are like phones were two decades ago: on the precipice of a fundamental change, led by big European companies, but surrounded by uncertainty about the exact shape and speed of change to come.
When I attended MWC, it exuded a distinct air of being out of sync with most manufacturers’ product schedules. LG brought out a cynical rebadging of its V30, Huawei and Lenovo launched laptops instead of phones, and HTC had nothing new at all. Phone companies just didn’t seem to be all that bothered about making a big appearance at MWC. Compare that to the wild and wonderful Geneva week that just featured Aston Martin’s grandiose Lagonda concept, Rimac’s scorching Concept Two, Bugatti’s even faster Chiron Sport, Jaguar’s cheaper-than-a-Tesla I-Pace SUV, and Volvo’s built-for-the-Europeans V60 station wagon. Each of those companies is European, and each of those cars has (to a greater or lesser extent) been saved up specifically for Geneva so it can make a grand impression on the European stage.
On a personal level, being at MWC made me feel like I was in the wrong place as a tech journalist in Europe. All the most exciting things, such as Vivo’s outrageous bezel-less prototype with a pop-up selfie cam, were coming from west and east of my home continent. Amazon, Google, and Apple are leading the way on software and assistant-enhanced services, China is iterating at ludicrous speed on the hardware side, and Europe seems to just be coming along for the ride. When MWC happens, exciting things are a matter of coincidence with existing plans among Chinese and American companies, not a deliberate effort to come and impress Europeans.
Wearing my car journalist hat in Geneva, on the other hand, made me feel full of vim and vigor. This was where the absolute cutting edge of car design and engineering was being shown off. Until the car industry has its iPhone moment — if it ever has one — it will continue to be names like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes that push us forward and define our future mobility. Europe is relevant, influential, and important to cars in a way that it once was with phones. Sure, a lot of companies are now adapting their models and developing entire lines of automobiles just for the rapidly growing Chinese clientele, but European car buyers remain a huge influence on what gets made and what doesn’t. Volvo’s V60 exists primarily because of the enduring popularity of station wagons across Europe (and especially in the company’s native Sweden).