San Francisco Auto Show

2020 Mercedes-Benz EQC

As we mentioned in yesterday’s post about the amazing Jaguar I-Pace, we spent a few hours walking the Moscone in San Francisco checking out this year’s car show. I should point out up front that the SF show is far from a major event, and coming just the week before the big Los Angeles show, it never has much that is not already available in dealer showrooms.

That said, with all the interest in EVs and a series of big launch events for new EVs from German manufacturers just a few months earlier, including one that was actually held in the city, we were expecting to at least see some of the new EVs coming to the market. We were, mostly, disappointed though.

Who Had EVs?

Let’s start with the people showing their new, or existing, EVs on the floor, in order of how serious they appeared to be about their EV offerings, followed by the ones who were not.

1. Jaguar

We’ve talked about the Jaguar I-Pace, and in addition to having them on the show floor, they also had them available for test drives upstairs. Not only that, they had people who both knew about the I-Pace and other EVs, and appeared genuinely excited by the vehicle and the potential for the future it brings.

I had a similar experience earlier in the year at a local Jaguar dealer where the sales staff seemed to be genuinely excited by the I-Pace (they had one on loan from Jaguar for a few days to show off, but not to drive).

2. Hyundai

Hyundai had both the Ioniq and Kona EVs on their booth and were letting people look all over them. Neither are available today in the US, and the Ioniq is not even listed as a future vehicle for the US market (the Kona EV is listed as being available next year, as is the Nexo fuel cell vehicle). Hyundai also had a representative next to the Kona EV specifically answering questions about it. The Kona EV has garnered rave reviews in Europe and, while it is perhaps a little small for the US SUV market, it competes well with the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Bolt. 

3. Nissan

While the new Leaf was on their booth, there was nobody near it promoting it, and I saw no mention of the upcoming improvements to the battery capacity and the addition of active thermal management that is rumored to come with that. 

At least there was a Leaf there with an information panel and people could look over it inside and out. Nissan have also been very active around here at least in promoting it with both TV ads and billboards.

4. Chrysler/Fiat

Nothing new from Fiat, but they did at least have the e500 on the booth, along with several different spec models of the widely acclaimed Pacifica PHEV minivan. As with Nissan, nobody around to field questions about either vehicle, but at least they had them at the show!

5. Chevrolet

While today’s news from GM included the announcement that the Volt was ending production, Chevy did have both the Volt and the excellent full EV Bolt on their booth. As with the last two though, no real evidence that they were trying to promote them – all we heard about while there were their oversized pickup trucks, and how much of them was made of heavy steel. Having them on the booth is still better than some other companies managed…

6. Audi

Audi was the manufacturer that chose to launch their new EV, just called the Audi e-tron, in San Francisco earlier this year. There was a production e-tron on their booth, although it was on a raised up plinth making it impossible to see the interior or even get a good look around it. There was also very little information visible on the booth about it.

From the outside, it appears much like the Q7 with only subtle design differences hinting that it is something else. Somewhat larger than I was expecting from seeing it in the launch videos.

7. Mercedes-Benz

The most disappointing by far was Mercedes-Benz. While they did have the aging Smart Four-Two EV on their booth, there was no sign of the new EQC (launched around the same time as the Audi e-tron) on the booth. Not even any obvious information about it.

When I asked one of their employees about it, I got the rather curt response that it was not a production vehicle, so they wouldn’t have it at the show. When I pointed out that Audi, literally right next to them, had their e-tron visible on the booth, he tried to claim it was available, and then became uninterested and walked away.

As a long time Mercedes owner, and current Mercedes EV owner, I was very disappointed to see that the two main competitors to the EQC were present, and one was even letting visitors take test drives, but the EQC was totally absent.

Note: All the information I’ve seen to date suggests that they will have an EQC on their booth in Los Angeles too, so it appears that Mercedes-Benz can include “non-production” cars in their show lineups when they want to. Just not in San Francisco.

8. Volkswagen & Porsche

While we did not spend much time in the VW space, I do not recall seeing any sign of any of their announced EVs. The same was true on the Porsche booth – no sign that they have several EVs in the pipeline at all.

9. BMW

In previous years, BMW has had their i3, i8 and a whole collection of PHEV variants of their vehicles in San Francisco. This year, they were absent. Not just the cars, the entire company was absent from the show. Not sure what message that sends to the San Francisco Bay Area… 


I believe you can tell a lot about how a manufacturer sees the future of electric vehicles relative to their existing ICE models by how they approach these smaller car shows. Sure, they’re all talking about them at the Los Angeles, Paris, Geneva, Tokyo and Detroit shows, but it is the smaller shows in places like San Francisco, especially San Francisco with its environmentally friendly reputation, that indicate how committed they really are to EVs.

Not to mention San Francisco is Tesla’s back yard; the company that is literally eating their lunch in several sectors right now, outselling all the luxury car brands in September in the US by a significant margin. Around here, it is not hard to spot Teslas, nor is it hard to spot all the other EVs. I keep hearing about neighbors who have taken delivery of their new Model 3. There are at least three in my block (less than 20 homes total) now.

Just on Alameda, an island with less than 80,000 people living on it, I know of four Mercedes B Class EVs – a car so rare that there are estimated to be only around 3,600 in existence, worldwide. In San Francisco in 2016, 6% of all new cars sold were EVs; in San Jose, just to the south, that number was 10% [ref]. Los Angeles, while it topped the list in absolute numbers, only saw 4% of new car sales as EVs.

Yet, as this weekend’s show visit demonstrates, some, especially the larger German companies, apparently remain uncommitted to their EVs. The relatively small British/Indian Jaguar-Land Rover beat them to the punch with the I-Pace, both in terms of announcements and actual vehicle deliveries. Back in mid October, the first one was delivered to a customer here in the US. Over a month later, Audi has their e-tron out of reach on their booth and Mercedes seems to be trying to deny their new EV even exists yet.

Earlier this year Audi also announced that customers in the US would not be able to buy the e-tron from their dealers the way they can other Audi models. Instead, they would have to order the car directly from Audi, and it would be delivered via a dealer. There may not even be one in a showroom for potential customers to test drive. That doesn’t shout commitment.

A Warning Tale: Nokia

A little over a decade ago, Nokia was the number one mobile phone manufacturer in the world. RIM’s Blackberry devices & a handful of devices using Windows Mobile were contenders in the segment that would become known as smartphones, but they had nothing for the rest of the market, which, at that time, was the vast majority of it. Nokia was the undisputed leader in terms of numbers, quality and features.

Inside Nokia however a few people had seen where the market was going, and a small team was trying to push a new mobile operating system platform based on Linux. They were met with a lot of resistance from the core Symbian team, and were essentially blocked from launching an actual phone based on this platform. I worked with that team for a while trying to add improved Wi-Fi connectivity to it – it was lightyears ahead of Nokia’s then mainstream Symbian platform (which we also supported as best as we could given its limitations).

Then the iPhone launched, and the rest is, as they say, history.

The behavior of the incumbent car manufacturers towards Tesla and EVs in general looks remarkably similar to the way those mobile phone giants treated Apple and the switch to phones being networked pocket computers. Nokia wrote the iPhone off as a niche play, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer claimed it would never get much market share, one of RIM’s co-CEOs thought it would mean nothing for Blackberry. None of those three phone platforms exist now.

Perhaps the large car companies would be well advised to act faster in their switch to electric propulsion. By this point, they could all have had multiple real EV offerings in dealer showrooms. Tesla has shown that it can be done, that there is demand for EVs, and even with all the production issues they’ve had, people still love their cars and the company. I suspect a lot more people can name Tesla’s CEO than can name the CEOs of Mercedes, Audi or even Chevrolet.

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