A living room on a skateboard: how electric vehicles are redefining the car | Automobile industry
JTake any gasoline-powered car sold today and show it to a mechanic working on a Model T Ford 100 years ago and chances are he pretty much understands how it works. An internal combustion engine at the front turns the wheels, carrying a driver behind a steering wheel, passengers and luggage.
The advent of electric cars changes everything. The shape of the car will no longer be so rigidly defined by bulky engines, exhaust management or driveshafts. At the same time, digital technology promises to replace everything from mirrors to the human driver. Never before has the automotive industry had to deal with so many changes at the same time.
All of these changes will come to a head in the next few years, says BMW Group design boss Adrian van Hooydonk. The main concerns of automakers will be electric power and the integration of rapidly evolving digital technology, while improving environmental sustainability. “It will be a reinvention,” he says.
Here are some of the most striking changes we can expect.
Already the lack of an internal combustion engine had an impact. Look at the front of a Tesla and one thing becomes clear: there’s no grille needed to supply air to the engine.
Rival manufacturers (in catch-up mode from Tesla, the world’s most valuable automaker) are using the new design freedom to deliver models such as the Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Honda e that opt for smaller but louder lights in a set offering a retro futurism that might have featured in a 1980s sci-fi movie.
But the changes will go far beyond superficial style. Electric cars are built with a “skateboard” design, with a flat bed of batteries and wheels and motors at each end. Electric motors are also smaller than bulky internal combustion engines, meaning there’s no need for an expanse of hood in front of the driver.
The American startup Canoo is one of the most notable examples. His ‘lifestyle vehicle’, which could be delayed until early next year due to supply chain issues, will have a particularly flat front, giving it a boxy shape unlike most modern cars .
However, aerodynamic considerations still dominate to some extent. UK van startup Arrival initially planned for a vertical front windscreen, but ultimately opted for a more traditional angled design as air resistance reduced the vehicle’s range.
More interior space
Skateboarding means electric cars are typically a few inches taller, and many automakers started with bulky sport utility vehicles (SUVs) first so they could fit more batteries. But there is even more space for passengers.
In combustion-engined cars, “the mechanics took up a huge amount of space in the overall footprint,” says Mark Adams, design director at Vauxhall-Opel. Repurposing that space in an EV then “really depends on the individual vehicle and what you’re trying to do as a brand”.
Citroën, one of Vauxhall’s stablemates under the Stellantis conglomerate, has already shown an option: the Ami is a small, no-frills two-seater for cruising around town. It will launch later this summer in the UK for under £8,000.
In France, the Ami can be driven by anyone over the age of 14, without the need for a driving licence.
Adams thinks the electric revolution could finally stop the movement towards bigger SUVs. “The days of forever growing cars are over,” he says. “We don’t need to have massive footprint cars anymore.”
Fewer car parts
The production of zero exhaust emissions is not the only major change in the look and feel of the cars. Reducing end-of-life waste is increasingly seen as crucial for automakers, which means using fewer parts with fewer complicated mixes of materials where possible.
For example, a car’s grille can hold 10 to 15 parts, so going without them reduces the hassle of repair or recycling. BMW’s i Vision flyer showed how a car could be made with just seven materials, all of which are recyclable. However, achieving this on a large scale will be another matter.
Forget the steering wheel
The most glaring absence in future cars will ultimately be the steering wheel. Driverless cars are already logging millions of miles on the road, and it seems inevitable that mostly or fully self-driving cars (known as Level 4 and Level 5 in industry jargon) will – eventually – come to the market.
“If you then switch it to fully autonomous mode, you don’t necessarily have to stay in the same position,” says Vauxhall’s Adams. “We’re all watching this space.”
Changing “one big thing changes 100 little things,” he adds. Less driving means less need for easily accessible controls, so cars will swap out the airplane cockpit, filled with buttons and switches, for a cleaner look that’s more fun-oriented.
Overall, digitalization will have an even greater effect on car design than even electrification, says van Hooydonk.
Living room on wheels
Canoo calls its US-bound model a “loft on wheels,” while Korean automaker Hyundai’s Seven concept vehicle features swinging lounge chairs and bench seats that it describes as a “living space on wheels.” Clearly some cars are going to be treated more like extensions of the house that move around as drivers are free to do other things.
All that free time on the go can give people more time for other activities. Cinema-style projectors or virtual reality entertainment are two current options. Automotive consultants and big tech companies from Apple and Alphabet to Spotify and WeChat believe the car will be the next place they can sell a huge range of services such as movies, games and music.
Eventually, the interiors could change from “living room” to “bedroom”, although putting beds rather than seats in the cars poses delicate security problems. However, the idea of going to bed at home and waking up at work, or even in another country, is no longer a Jetson-like pipe dream.