The official theme of the 2009 show is "sustainable mobility", corporate speak for environmentally friendly cars and production methods. Walking around the show among the high-powered supercars with glitzy aftermarket paint jobs, it may be hard to tell car makers are serious about going green in the UAE. But some are trying to make inroads here and abroad with attempts at more efficient means of transport - it just takes some look- ing around the floor to find them.
Some, such as Lexus, Mercedes and BMW, are more obvious, with hybrid cars on display that are set to hit the UAE market next year. But according to Phil Horton, BMW's managing director in the Middle East, going green in the emirates is not easy. "This whole sustainability thing, from our point of view, we can talk about how BMW makes the cars, and the recycling and the efficient dynamics. My personal view is that the Middle East is still not ready for 'reduced emissions'.
"Yes, we're bringing the hybrid cars here, because those have been developed; we think we might sell a small number of them, probably to the government or certain individuals who want to make a statement. But I don't think we're going to make any progress without government initiatives. Because what the States show you, what Europe shows you, is that the manufacturers in this case, and indeed the customers, are followers to government. Without legislation, it won't happen.
"The first thing we need to do, though politically it might be quite difficult, is to take the fuel subsidies off," adds Horton. "A plus for government is that presents an opportunity for taxation. I'm not sure most of the governments in the Middle East are ready for that, but if anyone is going to do it, it's going to be Abu Dhabi. And that's an opportunity for Abu Dhabi to make a strong leadership statement.
"The ironic thing is that all of the European manufacturers, some of the American manufacturers, less so of the Asian manufacturers, are clearly well capable of answering any legislative requirement when it comes to emissions. But we're not going to bring it here if it's something that customers won't buy." Audi's managing director of the Middle East, Jeff Mannering, agrees with Horton about government legislation. Audi is taking a different approach to introducing more efficient vehicles here by unveiling its diesel-powered TDI Q7 at the motor show.
"This is to give the market a choice," says Mannering. "We are testing the market. We are not in any hurry and not expecting huge sales straight off the bat, but we thought it was good to have another product in our line-up." Mannering says that diesel fuel is slowly becoming more readily available at UAE garages but says the government has a role to play in encouraging drivers to switch to diesel.
"One way you can change people's perceptions in the Middle East is for the opinion leaders, and by that I mean the government, to encourage this technology - the technology is here, so why not use it?" says Mannering. Off in the far end of the show was Luxgen, a relatively new car company from Taiwan. Among its five MPVs on display was one electrically powered vehicle that looked exactly like its other cars, apart from bold graphics on the side signalling its EV power.
Inside, the car comes with such luxuries as night vision, exterior cameras, leather upholstery and USB inputs. Its powertrain, made by AC Propulsion, the same company that supplies Tesla, boasts a 240hp electric motor and enough lithium-ion battery power to give the MPV a range of 350km on a single charge. Calvin Lee, Luxgen's vice-president of marketing, says the company has no plans yet to market the cars in the UAE but is first focusing on other markets that are more open to EVs.
"The vehicle is very practical, but the key is the government," says Lee. "One of our first steps will be China. They are serious about hybrids and EVs. For example, the Beijing government is looking for companies to supply them with electric vehicles [for its plan to promote EVs in 13 of its major cities], and in return they will give 100 per cent support, including funding, infrastructure, everything. If they do that, that's meaningful.
"The way we see making the electric car feasible is treating the battery as fuel - leasing the batteries instead of selling them with the cars. If you're low on power, you can swap them at a service station. But for leasing the batteries, we need government support for infrastructure [charging stations, battery swap stations, improvements to power grids, etc]." General Motors has a show version of its Chevrolet Volt hybrid on display, but the company has no immediate plans to bring it to the UAE. Toyota has its tiny iQ at the show, but again, don't expect it to come here anytime soon. But Simon Frith, managing director of Al Futtaim Motors, the Toyota distributor for the emirates, hinted that its line of hybrids could be making its way to the UAE.
"We've got six hybrid vehicles on long-term tests with the RTA, and we're delighted with their performance. What we want to do before we introduce hybrid technology here is to make sure the technology is spot on," says Frith. "We think in the UAE market, despite the arguments of low petrol prices, I think the potential here is strong. I think there are opinion leaders, UAE families, who are sending out strong signals about sustainable motoring, and I think the time is right now for Toyota to come forward with our hybrid plans. And we will do that shortly."
Hajime Sakaguchi, Toyota's general manager for the Middle East, adds that the company is still deciding on what model will appear here. "Probably a little bigger size than the Prius might be needed, but we have not decided which model is best suited here. As far as Lexus is concerned, we have started with the top end [the LS 600 h] but we will gradually start to introduce the lower end of Lexus." Frith adds, "I was part of the European introduction [of hybrids] in the UK, and they were given subsidies there; they were given encouragement. But I think here, in a sense, that there's a movement here towards that sustainability agenda."
Two companies noted more for their raw power than fuel efficiency talked about future plans for green cars. AMG, which introduced its gull-winged SLS supercar at the show, will have a fully electric version of the car by 2013, says Volker Mornhinweg, chairman of the AMG board. "I personally will drive the prototype this week," he says. "It is an extremely powerful car and we will make a big move with it." He also described the possibility of an AMG hybrid as "more or less a given."
And Junus Khan, Shelby SuperCar's marketing director, says that an electric powertrain for its Ultimate Aero is being developed parallel to the petrol-engine cars. Khan says the company is hoping to release this powertrain in 2010 but for now "we are keeping it under wraps". Its petrol-powered version on display - the fastest production car in the world - has a 32-gallon tank that would be burned off completely in 15 minutes of driving at full throttle.
For pure performance-minded petrol heads, there was one hybrid on display that was designed more for excitement than efficiency. The Kepler Motors Motion is a low, sleek rolling concept designed for a twin-turbocharged V6 mounted midship powering its rear wheels with an electric motor to power the front. Russ Wicks, the man behind the project and owner of two speed records, says he wants the car to be the quickest production vehicle available, and plans to build just 50 cars for release in 2011.
"For us," says Wicks, "we needed it to have all-wheel drive, and the idea of electric was brought up because the torque of an electric motor is instant. "Myself, with a motorsports background, I'm not opposed to burning petroleum fuel. I think there is an element with our vehicle of being better for the environment, but we're not going to be the ones going out to save the world. We really want to go fast, and we see a way of doing it cleverly and efficiently" email@example.com
* additional reporting by Georgia Lewis