Will Electric Vehicles Open Up Car Design?
In addition to thrilling performance cars like the Honda Civic Type R, Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster, Audi RS3, and Ferrari GTC4Lusso T, another vehicle category found prominence at this year’s Paris Motor Show. Motivated by increasingly stringent global emissions and efficiency standards, by economies of scale that reduce material cost and weight, and by technological advances that enhance storage capacity, electric vehicles (EVs) are proliferating across brands and market segments.
Fortunately for consumers and enthusiasts, and for the planet, this newfound burgeoning means that EVs no longer all have to look like battery-implanted versions of a familiar vehicle, like the unfortunately named Smart ForTwo ED, or like dumpy/lumpy outliers, such as the Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Liberated from the constraints of conventions like engine placement, transmission tunnels, radiator grilles, and overhangs, designers should have the wherewithal to flout tradition and create pleasing new forms.
But do they?
While wandering around the Paris show halls, we stopped to talk to a number of top designers about their new electric models, their design philosophies, and their unique perspectives on what is gained, or lost, in creating an electric car.
Klaus Bischoff, Head of Design, Volkswagen - VW I.D. Concept
“Proportion is the biggest change in designing electric cars. Why have the proportions of an internal combustion engine car if there is no engine? Without the engine, we can move the wheels to the very ends of the car, move the air conditioning components into the former engine compartment, move the dashboard far forward. Then we can maximize interior space, so for example in our I.D. we have a car that is smaller than a Golf on the outside, but has the interior space of a Passat on the inside. And we have room for a giant head-up display with augmented reality, that can appear to display onto the road in front of the car through the large angled windshield.”
“What do we lose? Maybe we lose the sound of an engine, but we gain back in time and relaxation. It’s a revolutionary change when the industry is disrupted, when someone comes up with a product that is better and answers questions no one knew to ask. I think people are more than ready for this, but we need to deliver something that is fascinating, that is fun, that eliminates some of the pain points associated with driving today.”
Gorden Wagener, Director of Design, Mercedes-Benz – Generation EQ Concept
“With our F 015 concept of a couple years back, we showed how things could eventually be fifteen years in the future. But it is important to start with something more familiar, yet something that appeals not just to the rational side of the brain, but to the emotional side as well. With this concept, we’ve created a very clean, purposeful, seamless design with an aerodynamic silhouette, but it maintains the typical Mercedes proportions, based on our typical rear-wheel-drive architecture. This is what the brand is about.”
“The downside is that the battery pack adds around six inches of height, which is why SUV proportions look better. You have to camouflage that volume somehow. Also, we can’t really call it a gas pedal anymore. That is why we have the big plus and minus signs etched on the pedals here. It’s an electron pedal.”
Yann Jarsalle, Designer, Renault – Trezor Concept
“Electric vehicles are becoming more familiar and common, so we don’t need to express this powertrain through design. We can simply design a car that expresses passion and emotion, and is powered by electricity. In this concept, a two-seater, we’ve stayed with the convention of a long hood, but we didn’t use the convention of two doors – we have just one door that opens from the top, so we have a different configuration, allowing access all at once to the seats, the luggage up front, and the filler caps for any fluids.”
“Since we wanted to add warmth and familiarity to this radical concept, on the exterior we had a tessellated hexagon pattern in the carbon fiber that you just want to reach out and touch, and on the interior, we used hand-crafted, tailor-made saddle leathers, as well as real wood as a structural element – we were helped here by a French company KEIM that makes wooden bicycles. They worked with the grain of the wood to get the best strength, making this ash wood almost as light as carbon fiber.
“This concept may never come to be, but it gives us a direction. We can have a vision, but it is always good to have something that materializes that vision. It shows that an electric car doesn’t need to look like a lump or a van. It can be cool. An object to make people dream.”
Shiro Nakamura, Head of Design, Nissan
“Liberation from classic car design convention in EV depends on the segment. Regardless of the powertrain, if you make a driver’s car, some authentic design must exist. People who love cars have some conventional expectations for cars. But if the car is more pure transportation, like an appliance, we can go more radical. This is very different from most other categories of products, because design in cars – exterior design in particular – is about emotional connection. Think about a smartphone. These items could be any shape, but they end up being purely functional. This is because after one year, you throw them away. This is not true with a car.”
“What is lost? Sound is such an important factor in enthusiasts for cars. But even an electric train has a sound of motion, this mechanical noise from the motor – whoosh. As car interiors become more complex, more prominent in some ways than car exteriors in terms of design, I think sound design becomes much more important. When you drive, if all sound is comfortable, you won’t stress. If sound is not harmonized, it’s very stressful. That’s why we are starting to work on total sound design. It is the next frontier.”
Alexandre Gommier/Stephan Jubt Rasmussen, Senior Designers, Lexus – UX Concept
Alexandre (Interior Design) “The idea was to communicate something fresh to young urbanites, or what we call Yurbanites, to provide something more three-dimensional in the interior, a different way to interact with the car. So we have a floating open feel to the front seats which are webbed and transparent, a floating spaciousness to the rear bench with a floating console, an instrument panel that includes a floating hologram. The design is meant to show a robust and alive synergy between what is inside and what is outside.”
Stephan (Exterior Design) “Electric power is developing a new excitement about cars, but technology alone cannot act as that excitement. Creating beauty must be part of the future. Some people are going for a more rational approach in an EV where they take out everything conventional and put in only what is absolutely required. But if we are just sitting in a car, looking at a flat screen, we are not moving forward as a society. It’s a very passive paradigm. We need challenge. We need excitement. If it’s just like sitting in a train, we’re not talking about car design.”