Do EVs herald a new era of car design?

Rapid advances in battery and power-unit technology are giving the world's automakers the freedom to dream up new design concepts that could transform the way cars look

Home Road Cars Electric Do EVs herald a new era of car design?

An insight into the brave new world of electric car design was revealed at the 2019 Tokyo Motor Show in the shape of the Lexus LF-30 Electrified concept car. Intended to explore the looks and technology of electric vehicles (EVs) that could be sold from around 2030, its sleek exterior sweeps back in flowing metallic curves that represent the energy produced by the four futuristic in-wheel electric motors. With no need for a bonnet, the huge window glass wraps from the front of the car to the rear.

Do EVs herald a new era of car design?
Do EVs herald a new era of car design?

“Electric vehicles open up the potential for many changes, from dimensions and proportions to how they are engineered,” Takashi Watanabe, chief engineer for Lexus electrified projects, told Autocar.

It's a feeling shared by Thomas Ingenlath, CEO of Volvo-owned carmaker Polestar. “When approaching design for this new era, automakers must introduce revolutionary cars, not evolutionary cars,” he told CNN. “In most passenger vehicles there is a large engine under the front hood and a fuel tank that takes up space under the vehicle. EV designers are not locked into this traditional framework.”

Come the revolution

The first electric cars, of course, were far from thrilling. The small, box-shaped REVAi was launched in 2001 and made headlines for being used by a few eco-conscious celebrities. But sales stalled and in the UK, where it was called the G-Wiz, Auto Express magazine voted it the worst car ever made.

Manufacturers seemed to learn from the experience and have made sure their EVs live up to the styling of their combustion-engine rivals. Today Jaguar's all-electric SUV, the I-Pace, has sporty and muscular lines, the BMW i3 has a snappy modern appeal and the Nissan Leaf has an understated charm. 

But they are still based on traditional designs with a motor in the middle and axles, steering and suspension eating up critical cabin space. This approach is needlessly limiting: “Without an internal combustion engine and a fuel tank, there are new design possibilities to explore,” adds Ingenlath.

Liberating designers

Electric car batteries and motors are now being produced in new shapes and sizes, giving EV designers more scope to use their imaginations. The Polestar 2, for example, has a flat and compact 78 kWh battery integrated into the floor that maximises space for the all-vegan interior and creates a low centre of gravity. Two motors on the axles generate a punchy 600 Nm of torque. 

Developing an in-wheel drive system is another game-changer. It eliminates the need for drive shaft, transmission, suspension parts and other weighty components. Because the vehicle is lighter, a smaller battery and less powerful motor are needed, which in turn saves more weight and frees up space.

Engineers at Indigo Technologies of Cambridge, Massachusetts, have spent 10 years secretly doing just that with their sophisticated in-wheel drive system, Traction T1. Importantly, it includes active suspension to counteract motion sickness, which will be a bigger issue as vehicles become lighter and the mass of the passengers inside becomes a more significant proportion of the total weight, changing ride dynamics.

“In laymen's terms, your small Uber rides like a motion-sickness inducing golf cart,” explains Marshall Chapin, president and CRO at Indigo Technologies, in Autonomous Vehicle Technology magazine. “With an in-wheel motor and active suspension, you can build vehicles that are 10 times as efficient as those on the road today, vehicles tailor-made for the inevitable autonomous future.”

Add to that advances in both battery technology and lightweight materials, and it is clear that the electric vehicle revolution is already underway. And there are promising signs that automotive designers are keen to take up the challenge laid down by Polestar's Ingenlath to make this “the remarkable new era in car design it deserves to be”.