Last week, at the Geneva Auto show, the electric car went from in-the-wings to on-the-main-stage. Geneva also flagged up some of the key ways that the electric car impacts on car design. We think that 2016 has become the year where Car 2.0 – the convergence of electric power, autonomy and smart sharing – will start to be realised as the car design story that it is.
For several years we have seen a growing number of electric production and concept cars, but Geneva 2016 showed for the first time how unequivocally the electric car is here and here to stay. At one end of the show floor Hyundai presented the Ioniq, a stand-alone lower-medium car that comes in three flavours of electric: BEHV (battery electric hybrid vehicle), BEV (Battery Electric Vehicle) and PHEV (Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle). A mainstream brand introducing a mainstream car type exclusively with electrified powertrains – a world first. At the other end of the hall was one of the road’s oldest and most traditional of car companies, Morgan, showing a concept car preview of their all electric three-wheeler roadster, the EV3. Between these two poles of electric car types at Geneva we had Tesla showing their gull-wing doored Model X SUV, several electric mid-engine supercar concepts with over 1000PS, BMW announcing their iPerformance brand that takes some of the alchemy from the i3 and i8 PHEV/BEVs to the core BMW model-line-up, and numerous PHEV versions of otherwise ‘normal’ petrol or diesel powered sedans, hatchbacks, SUVs and wagons -notably from the trend leading brands Audi, Volvo, Mercedes and BMW.
But isn’t this just news about cars not news about car design? Maybe the headline is about this market adoption of a new means of motivation for the private passenger car. But it is also a design story. Car proportions are changing, mostly for the better, as the packaging constrains of the BEVs change relative to ICE (internal combustion engine) cars. Tesla’s platform on display in Geneva shows this change most compellingly, and the BMW 100 concept of this week (that previews the i5) arguably shows even more so the scope for EV realised proportional changes. The downsizing of the ICE in BHEVs — the Volvos most notably — also tips-over to affect vehicular proportions. And then there are the details too; witness the front ‘grille’ treatments of the Hyundai Ioniq and the Morgan EV3.
Yet these proportional shifts and more subtle design details that electric cars bring to car design is only the tip of the iceberg. Electric cars are fundamentally moving the ground under the feet of car design. The whole idea of the car is set to change with the electric car - and the autonomous, shared car that this bleeds into. The fundamental tenants of ‘sportyness’ and of luxury, of the nature of cars’ singular unconnectedness, of their noisy animation — of the idea of a ‘motor-car’ — is waning. Car 2.0 isn’t here now, but in the last throws of Car 1.0 we can perhaps see its shadow already being cast, and its story is very much a design story. It’s just, excitingly, that it hasn’t been fully written yet.
By Sam Livingstone