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5 things we learned from the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show

2015 Porsche 918 Spyder

Porsche's million-dollar performance hybrid, the 918, combines V8 engine power with an electric motor that drives the front wheels. It can go 93mph on electricity alone.

The 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show, one of the biggest car shows on the calendar, is under way and all the big carmakers have finally revealed their formally camouflaged specialty cars and announced their big ideas. So what common themes are new for this year?

1. Hybrids and electrically-powered cars have hit the big time

The Ferrari and McLaren hybrid supercars have been joined by Porsche, who officially took the wraps off the 918, a plug-in hybrid gem with a million-dollar price tag and performance to match. But the tech trickle-up from lowly grocery-getter hybrids and trickle-down performance supercars like the LaFerraria has become a flood. Just about every automaker is getting into the game with cars that feature some sort of electric propulsion for either more speed, better economy, or, like the bucks-up Porsche, both.

BMW i8

BMW’s i8 hybrid is a clean-sheet design that takes advantage of advances in materials, hybrid power and a lot of in-car technology.

No cars at the show made this as clear as BMW’s clean-sheet i3 EV and its stunning i8 hybrid, which feature new approaches to construction, materials, configuration and technology. While the Tesla Model S has held the public’s attention in the EV realm for two years now, Elon Musk must be looking in his rearview mirror as the competition, especially in Europe, gets their feet under them when it comes to how cars will be built and work in the future – which is now.

Suddenly, driving around on just plain old gas is so 2012.

2. Diesel is asserting its superiority as a fuel

Who knew that stinky old diesel would grow up, clean up and become the fuel of choice for much of the world? The crazy-cool Audi nanuk concept car sports a V-10 power plant putting out a prodigious 544 horsepower and over 730 foot-pounds of torque  – and it’s a diesel! Outside of its four-wheel steering, Back-To-The-Future styling and myriad tech tricks, that’s just a sick amount of power for any kind of private passenger vehicle. Outside the borders of the gasoline-obsessed United States, diesel has reached a tipping point with roughly half the vehicles on the road using the fuel.

Audi Nanuk Quattro

The Audi ‘nanuk’ quattro Concept made a big splash at Frankfurt for its blend of great looks, all-wheel steering, high-tech features and monstrous diesel power.

What happened? Technology, for the most part. The fuel is cleaner and packs more punch than gas, so even though it’s more expensive at the pump, in the end it pencils out as costing about the same. New techniques to make diesel and exhaust treatment systems have ended the tell-tale black clouds of exhaust and modern diesels no longer sound like clattering miniature semi trucks when running. In fact, a recent drive in a Mercedes GLK25o SUV confirmed diesel’s arrival: prodigious power (especially torque), which all drivers love, a quiet engine, and gas mileage near 40mpg made it a joy to drive a modern diesel.

Now, carmakers like Range Rover are tacking on turbos and even electric motors to create small, more-powerful diesel engines and super-economical hybrids. Expect this trend to continue and grow.

3. Carmakers are pushing hard on autonomous driving tech

We are all familiar with Google’s long-running autonomous car “experiment” that is pointing to a future where we can get in a car, strap in and then text and chat to our heart’s content because computers do the driving. Mercedes, Volvo, Audi, BMW and even American car companies like Ford share this vision and are putting increasing resources into autonomous driving research. It looks like robot cars are about to get real.

Just about every automaker is getting into the game with cars that feature some sort of electric propulsion.

At the Frankfurt show, Mercedes showed a video of their experimental autonomous car, which you could never pick out on the road since it looks like a regular Benz, successfully navigating a drive of over 100km and not on some desert test track. The car drove through countrysides, small towns, city traffic, conquered roundabouts and other complex obstacles while a human minder sat in the driver’s seat with hands off the wheel and feet off the pedals. Chaos did not ensue. It was a potent peek at the future of driving.

It was just a few years ago that a car that could parallel park by itself was a tech wonder. Now, that’s a common tick on an options list alongside much more tech including lane keeping tech, automated braking systems, collision detection, adaptive cruise control, navigation assisted driving, dozing driver detection and so on. As carmakers compete to give drivers ever more effective safety features, cars will increasingly become automated until the lines between driving and just going along for the ride are blurred.

Will a human driving a car eventually be viewed as a horrific safety hazard while automated cars zip along at high speed in close formation during rush hour? It could happen sooner than you think.

4. Tiny cars are now big business

Remember the first time you saw a Smart car? Did you say something like “I’ll never drive something like that”? Smart showed a new concept car at the Frankfurt show, the FourJoy, that holds four people instead of two – although their intriguing machine did away with such commonalities as doors and a roof.

Now, tiny cars are big business. From the popular Smart ForTwo to BMW’s i3 EV to diminutive Minis, people (at least in some countries) are getting over their need to drive giant barges to work and play. Today, little cars increasingly roam the streets of cities and more are on the way, especially from Asian and European carmakers. Even Chevrolet is in on the act with the Spark (and Spark EV).

Smart free spirit EV

Although it probably won’t see production without doors and a roof, hopefully whatever iteration the radical fourjoy eventually takes will include the electric skateboard seen here.

There will always be a need for large, powerful vehicles to haul around families, boats, work gear and so on. But many people and carmakers realize that a very small car hits all the right financial and practicality buttons: cheap to buy, cheap to fuel, easy to park and increasingly, fun to drive. Carmakers are also loading them up with tech. That’s why they make a great second car in the U.S. and elsewhere, or as an affordable primary vehicle in many other markets.

Add in hybrid or EV power and while the purchase price may tick up, the annual gas bill goes way, way down, especially if you can park that big gas guzzler in the garage for days at a time when it’s not needed.

5. EVs and hybrids are forcing carmakers to rethink basic concepts

For the most part, cars have followed a predictable pattern in design and construction for many decades: metal frame of some sort, engine usually in front, fat tires for maximum grip, rear, front or all-wheel drive. Sure, there have been variations on that theme, but nothing has disrupted automotive design trends like EVs and hybrids.

With the ability to put the heavy “fuel” (the battery) down low and use compact electric motors in the drivetrain or even right in the wheels, electrified cars have re-opened the frontiers of car design. Not having to design around bulky transmissions, engine lumps, exhaust systems and driveshafts has given car designers new directions to go when it comes to interior room, weight distribution, component placement and driving systems such as suspension and energy-absorption areas.

Outside the borders of the gasoline-obsessed United States, diesel has reached a tipping point.

The Tesla Model S was perhaps the most important recent example of rethinking car design, with its two trunks, battery weight right on the road, advanced safety made real in metal, lack of buttons and inclusion of a giant screen that makes everyone else’s tech centers look squinty and small.

Now, BMW has picked up the ball from Tesla with their i3 and i8 machines. The i3 EV uses aluminum in its construction along with large doses of a new material, carbon-reinforced plastic (CRFP), which is strong but light and absorbs energy better than metals. It even has suicide doors, something nearly structurally impossible today for safety when building a car out of metal. Car designers are discovering that battery weight can be a handling aid rather than a penalty while the same juice can power things like A/C and other systems that used to run off the engine, heightening efficiencies.

Additionally, BMW is using rather giant 21-inch wheels and thin, low-rolling resistance tires that look like they were stolen off motorcycles for the i3. Why? A thin wheel/tire combination is better aerodynamically while allowing better small-bump absorption in the same way a 29-inch wheel on a mountain bike can conquer terrain that might upend a bike with 26-inch rims. Sure, it looks a bit strange right now, but we’ll get used to it, especially if they give better performance.

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So what’s next? The carmakers move on to the big Tokyo and L.A. shows next, where home-field competitors will likely try to one-up their Euro competition. Honda (er, Acura) may have the new NSX hybrid on tap which could give the makers of the other hybrid supercars fits while Ford is gearing up for the 50th anniversary of the beloved Mustang with a new model. Could there be a surprise hybrid ponycar coming from Detroit? A recent interview with Ford’s top EV guy may have hinted at just such a surprise.

Nissan has recently said they will have autonomous cars up for sale by 2020, do they have the tech muscle to get robotic cars rolling before the competition?

BMW i3 EV

The new BMW i3 EV combines new materials – notably carbon reinforced plastic – with big wheels and skinny tires in a car that looks to make the most of electric driving.

And while Americans (and really, most everyone) love high-performance cars, the high price of gas and the politics of oil have more and more people turning to high-mileage hybrids, plug-ins and even pure electric cars. Carmakers would do well to take their million-dollar hybrid dream machines and stuff some of that tech into fun family cars, cutting down on gas bills while upping performance. Will affordable high-performance hybrids steal the show in Tokyo?

Expect diesel to continue its upward momentum as a liquid fuel as well, as automakers work to capitalize on diesels’ strengths as a high-mileage fuel in dependable, long-lasting engines. Coupled with electric motorization, diesel hybrids may be the unexpected hit carmakers have been looking for.

Digital Trends will bring you the big news from Tokyo and L.A. come November.

What trend or car did you see at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show show that got your attention? Leave a comment below.