EV designers can move the industry forward by invoking radical notions of the past
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Apr 25, 2023
Peter Vella

The electric vehicle transition is a generational opportunity to rethink personal transportation design, but few automakers are stepping up. Is there a modern-day Ransom Olds or Henry Ford of EVs waiting in the wings?

New form meets new function: Canoo’s pickup truck, not yet in full production, is based on its Lifestyle van. This shape and niche change is relatively easy and cost effective because of modular design elements. Source: Canoo

The electric vehicle transition is a generational opportunity to rethink personal transportation design, but few automakers are stepping up. Is there a modern-day Ransom Olds or Henry Ford of EVs waiting in the wings?

There is an interesting styling trend happening in the design studios of European manufacturers. Retro cars harking back to a simpler, happier car culture are showing up with electric powertrains. There is the VW ID Buzz, Fiat 500e, Renault 5e, the Mini electric, and the outrageously cute Microlino.

The iconic “people cars” of the European post-war era used simple, inexpensive-but-elegant design criteria to pull the auto industry (and Europe in general) out of a hole. Now it is the world that needs that pull. This challenge and opportunity is calling out to automakers: their EV designs should target the underlying essence of those wonderful retro creations, not merely replicate their shape.

side view of a white microlino
Microlino’s cute throwback. Photo: Microlino
Photo of VW ID Buzz
VW’s retro ID Buzz van. Photo: Volkswagen

The basis of great automotive design is to find that perfect balance between form and function. In a nutshell, form is what we see, and hopefully makes us smile. Function is what moves the car along in a safe and comfortable and (hopefully) environmentally friendly manner.

For decades, the basic ingredients of the function factor have remained fairly consistent. An internal combustion engine and all its cooling and exhaust apparatus is a framework to “build a car around.” Now the very powerful motor of a Lucid Air fits in an airline carry-on case. Think of what that would have meant to the designers of the original Citroen 2CV or SAAB 92. Now is the time to re-evaluate the overall design of personal transportation. 

Dedicated platforms just a start

The large OEMs are transitioning to electric mobility. The first phase was not much more than swapping a gas tank for a battery and an engine for a motor. This process reminds me of the first big disruption in personal transportation: when early automobiles were “horseless carriages.” This term aptly describes a conveyance (either ICE, steam- or electric-powered) with the same large diameter wheels and high centre of gravity of the buckboard it replaced.

There are so many ingredients in the modern function design broth. There is aerodynamic efficiency, weight reduction, safety, and comfort to name a few. If designers are aiming to address all those — while also lowering the final cost of an EV — the biggest gains might be in manufacturing technology.

Carl Benz’s automotive projects culminated in the Velocipede model of 1894. It is regarded by many as the first commercially available automobile. All automobiles of the time were built in a slow and inefficient manner that resulted in a product that was only affordable to the wealthy. In 1903, Ransom Olds disrupted that order with his Model R (or Curved Dash) which used an assembly line process to substantially lower manufacturing steps and subsequent retail cost. Five years later, Henry Ford went further by building a car whose form deferred to its manufacturing process, instead of the reverse. Model Ts only came in black because black paint dried faster.

Most manufacturers are now using dedicated EV platforms. Their attention to market trends (form) is understandable. However they are not yet anywhere near to using the full electric vehicle design potential. One might think international OEMs — with the largest resources, design facilities, and marketing access — will be where the disruption comes from. However, some of these behemoths have had a hard time redirecting their inertia.

But there are a few signs of hope.

Dawn of the “skateboard”

In 2002, a very forward-thinking concept vehicle showed up at the Detroit Auto Show. It evolved around an entirely different way of perceiving the mechanical structure of an automobile. General Motors was investing heavily into fuel cell hydrogen-electric propulsion research at the time. They gave their design team a very long leash with the AUTOnomy platform. This rethink questioned the entire concept of a unibody, incorporating the three box (motor, people, cargo) manifesto.

image of GM's Hy-wire
GM’s Hy-Wire concept car, the original skateboard. Photo: General Motors

In my memory, it was the first time the term “skateboard” was used to describe a horizontal rectangular chassis. Think of an ice cream sandwich suspended by four Oreo cookies; one at each corner. The fuel cells and all other mechanical bits lived within the two layers of the skateboard and each wheel had an inboard electric motor. There was no steering wheel protruding from the mechanical wafer as the GM designers were already envisioning “drive-by-wire” steering technology. The chassis and the car were separate entities.

On top of the AUTOnomy platform was a (newly vogue) “crossover” type vehicle. Called the Hy-Wire concept vehicle, it had a short hood and in place of a grill there was a transparent surface that allowed the driver to look past their feet and see the road (or parked vehicle) ahead. The accompanying media display showed that the same platform could be the foundation for a minivan (2002, remember) or a sports car. All this was rocket science for show goers that would have to wait another nine years to see a Nissan Leaf. General Motors has yet to produce anything as innovative as the AUTOnomy concept, though they may want to dust off the archives and take a deep breath.

The first electric vehicle that used innovative manufacturing processes (and could be purchased) was the BMW i3, released in 2013. The “cage” of the car was made of carbon fibre reinforced polymer, which was adhered (glued) to a lower aluminum module. That module contained the battery, drive system, and powertrain. It sounds great and BMW was very committed to the experiment. Sadly, the carbon fibre part of the manufacturing process seemed doomed to be expensive no matter how big the production numbers were. The public saw an expensive commuter car with very little range. After nine years of production BMW gave up on the unique i3.

Image of a silver 2013 BMW i3
The BMW i3’s carbon fibre reinforced polymer “cage” was innovative but too costly to sustain. Photo: BMW

A sign of hope amongst the big OEMs right now is Citroen. Citroen has a history of marching to the beat of a different design drum. Four years ago, Citroen showed the incredibly basic AMI EV concept car at the Paris Auto Show. A version of that car (to be shared) is being put into production.

Citroen’s most recent creation, the Oli (All-e) Concept, is another electric city car that looks to redefine simplicity, sustainability and affordability. Get a load of these bullets: 50 per cent recycled assembly materials and 100 per cent recyclable end of life materials; polyurethane coated cardboard body panels that are as strong as steel with half the mass; and 400 kilometres of (urban) range on a 40 kWh battery. These figures are possible due to a 1,000 kilogram total weight, which is 440 kg lighter than the MINI e. Lightness means a smaller battery, which means more lightness, etc. And to make sure there is a fun factor, the Oli Concept looks ready to take on the Dakar Rally.

image of Citroen Oli on empty road
The Citroen Oli Concept car pushes the boundaries of incorporated recycled and recyclable components. Photo: Stellantis/Citroen

Newcomers with a clean sheet

The biggest manufacturers could look to the smallest players to see what a clean sheet of design paper might look like. Not surprisingly it is the startup companies where the designers have jumped in with both feet. The California startup Canoo has incorporated an amazing level of space efficiency within the compact footprint of its Lifestyle capsule type vehicle. In many ways it has followed much of the design philosophy of the GM Autonomy, including surfboard structure, drive-by-wire steering, and even a transparent front surface. The difference being, Canoo intends to produce vehicles quite soon — comparatively.

Another innovator is Aptera. This California firm is working hard to present a three-wheeled, commuter bubble to urban communities. Their two-seater incorporates 3D-printed parts, composite structural materials, in-wheel motors and a level of aerodynamic efficiency unheard of before. The body (fuselage) was designed to incorporate solar panels. Combined with all its other efficiency-based features the battery and solar panels give the diminutive pod a 1,600-km range on a single charge, and 64 km of range on solar power alone.

Somewhere between Aptera and General Motors may be where the sweet spot of innovation could lie.

The rock star Tesla Model S had some amazingly innovative features when introduced. Undoubtably, it has to be considered a landmark in the electric vehicle design transition. The S had: an electric motor on each axle to create its all-wheel drive system; its batteries were placed throughout the floor structure; a storage area was where an engine bay might have been, and the car could receive online software upgrades. That is impressive. On the other hand, even though the car was well proportioned, it was a large heavy sedan and (in its first edition) had something on the front surface that was meant to look like the radiator grille of an ICE vehicle. Tesla now has the financial security and market swagger to rewrite the electric vehicle design and manufacturing ethos. Next in the works is the mythically popular Cybertruck.

However, one of the biggest near-term innovations coming from Tesla will not have the shock value of a Cybertruck. The Giga Press castings in the Tesla Model Y replace 70 undercar parts with a large aluminum sculpture. It can reduce costs in certain areas of manufacturing by up to 40 per cent. The castings themselves are not EV-specific, but the front and rear castings do connect with the battery cradle to create the base of the car’s structure. The castings also allow Tesla to build the Model Y at a rate three times faster than other EVs. Tesla is also looking to use the battery of an EV as more of a structural component. Think of how a modern motorcycle relies on its engine as a stressed member of the entire package.

side view of red Tesla Model Y
The most innovative electric vehicle design element in Tesla’s Model Y is its cast aluminum undercar, which takes the place of 70 discreet parts. Photo: Tesla

Consumers: the ultimate influencers

I feel that more than ever, consumers will play an important role in telling manufacturers how much innovation they want and what they are willing to pay for it.

Pickup trucks will still have their heavy metal image though they might be tip toeing across the planet. The Detroit Three are all offering electric pickup trucks that are not knocking down any electric vehicle design doors. For the most part, the makers were lucky that battery packs fit nicely into rail frames. On the weight scale alone, the Hummer EV pickup truck is the Budweiser beer wagon minus the eight Clydesdales. Canoo intends to produce a truly innovative pickup based on its Lifestyle van. This shape and niche change is relatively easy and cost effective because of modular design elements. The same, only very different.

The internet is revolutionizing the purchasing process. It creates a whole new enlightened niche within the car buying market, and they are well acquainted with the Form and Function siblings. Sandy Munro of Munro Associates has somehow made lean manufacturing information sexy and has 300,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel.

Are “we” willing to put both the horse and the wagon out to pasture? If so we could have some spicy offerings on the menu ahead. Think of the breath of fresh air that the Mini was in 1959, and it continued in production until 2000. To the designers I say, “Get light, get innovative, and spell function with a capital FUN.”

It is a matter of time until truly innovative electric vehicle design mirrors the simple and pure attributes of the drivetrain that will motivate it. This synergy will lower the cost of electric mobility, but will more importantly lower the burden that personal transportation applies to our planet.

Peter Vella photo

Peter Vella calls himself a car nut with a conscience, and has found his enthusiasm for things mobile revitalized by the electric vehicle movement. He travels extensively to most any electric vehicle symposium, international car show or car museum he can get to.

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