The California Startups Showcasing Forward Momentum for Mobility Design

This year has seen a number of new car reveals, but only a handful of these new designs have been impressive — the Koenigsegg Gemera, Ford Bronco and GMC Hummer spring to mind. And while we may have had to wait until the 11th hour for 2020 to shine through as a positive year, three new vehicles unveiled in the last week truly seem to embody forward momentum in mobility design. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of these come from established automakers. Instead, Canoo, Zoox and Aptera are California-based startups that showcase innovation in different ways, and all are massively appealing in their own right.

The Shared Vehicle

Zoox, an independent company based in California that was acquired by Amazon last year, provided the first look at the new mobility product its been working on since 2016. The four-passenger, fully autonomous robotaxi is intended for use in urban environments and features a 133 kWh battery (one of the largest available in electric vehicles today) allowing it to operate for up to 16 continuous hours on a single charge. It has four-wheel steering for maneuverability and can reach a claimed 75mph top speed as well.

The robotaxi’s exterior design is non-aggressive and inviting, from the soft curve of its roofline to the four-spoke wheels. The symmetry of the design adds to its product aesthetic and informs its use – it can operate in either direction – while the simplicity of its rounded forms is reminiscent of the first-generation iPhone. The only criticism is the lack of integration of the suite of cameras mounted in towers at all four corners and sensors on the roof. These technologies are required for safety but look tacked on.

At 3630mm long, the autonomous Zoox is fairly compact yet spacious, dedicating full use of the interior volume to the passengers on board. The cabin is accessed via tall sliding doors and, once inside, occupants have access to a simple UI and seemingly plenty of space thanks to a symmetrical seating configuration that places the individual seats to each side of the interior. Besides the glazing in the side doors (and around them), large glass panels in the roof and the LED-lined headliner also increase the perception of space in the interior and lend it a sophisticated, soothing quality.

The lingering Coronavirus pandemic, which makes the notion of traveling in any vehicle with strangers questionable, is a real concern within the shared mobile space at the moment. Hopefully the upcoming vaccine and people’s mindsets will enable the successful implementation of this type of service vehicle by the time the Zoox robotaxi appears in cities such as San Francisco and Las Vegas, for which it is ideally suited.

The Commercial Vehicle

There’s a lot to love about Canoo. From its thin, skateboard electric platform and steer-by-wire system that can accommodate a range of vehicles, to its minimalist yet futuristic design aesthetic, the California company has been showcasing an array of innovative and incredibly appealing possibilities since it launched last year.

The latest reveal is a Multi-Purpose Delivery Vehicle (MPDV), which can be ordered in three different body styles of various sizes (though only the MPDV1 and MPDV2 are available to order at present). Canoo’s vehicle customization examples focus on ergonomics and productivity gains through its low step-in height, high roof height, storage lockers, roll-up style or conventional door, and ramp slide outs.

Though the name implies use as a delivery truck – a segment that is expected to grow as much as 23% over the next decade as consumers increase the trend of online shopping – the van could also be used in a number of commercial and non-commercial applications, such a mobile food/coffee shop, a flower store, a mobile market stall, even a rugged, all-wheel-drive adventure vehicle or RV… The possibilities are seemingly endless.

Add on the purity of its simple design and this is the antithesis of the Tesla Cybertruck I criticized last year. This is a vehicle for the community, for the working class, it’s purpose-built for the people that depend on their vehicles for their livelihoods. Canoo’s electric platform can easily accommodate this demographic while also providing a customizable experience at an affordable price – the MPDV starts at just $33k, significantly reducing the barrier to entry. 

Though the van is also infused with advanced technologies to make it easier to drive, the practicality of the simple A-pillar has also been addressed: it consists of a skeletal frame and a piece of transparent glass at the center, minimizing the bulk of a traditional pillar and therefore improving outward visibility. It’s little touches like this that enable the MPDV to be a standout vehicle design.

Needless to say, I am massively impressed not only with the MPDV’s aesthetic simplicity but also its modularity and ability to address the needs of people and businesses in an ethical, approachable and socially responsible way. It’s one of the star debuts of 2020.

The Private Vehicle

The Aptera has been kicking about for a while so it’s perhaps unfair to include it in a list of the best designs of 2020, but it’s a breakthrough design nonetheless. Its efficient powertrain, optimized aerodynamics and light weight also make it appealing from an enthusiast’s perspective, which suits its two-person package quite well.

Designed in 2008 by independent designer Jason Hill (designer of the Porsche Carrera GT and instructor at Art Center) the Aptera is a simple three-wheeled two-passenger electric autocycle fitted with integrated solar panels on the entire upper portion of the vehicle. At 4369mm long, 2235mm wide and 1448mm tall, it isn’t as small as it looks in pictures, and its organic, nature-inspired design is space-age yet sensible. Shaped like a drop of water, the exterior shell is not only extremely aerodynamically efficient but also safe – its Formula-1 inspired safety cell is made from proprietary steel and aluminum composite material.

The interior is minimalistic, with one screen at the center of the IP and two smaller screens displaying rear view images from external cameras. There are a few colors and materials to choose from – including biodegradable and plant-based leather, recycled PET and 3D knit materials, bio-based plastic thread and recycled felt – to add to the Environmentally-conscious theme and personalize the user experience, but generally speaking it’s very simple.

One of the more notable elements of the design is the fact that it consists of fewer parts – the entire vehicle structure comprises just four main elements, a stark contrast to the 300 parts that make up typical electric vehicles. This enables it to be lighter than usual too. And because the tooling process includes 3D printed pieces it’s also less expensive to build.

The Aptera can be ordered in two- or all-wheel-drive configurations; the latter version can reach 60mph from a standstill in 3.5 seconds with the top of the range 100 kWh battery pack. And while that’s impressive, it’s the Aptera’s claimed 1000-mile range using that pack is most significant. Other packs on offer include a 25 kWh, 40 kWh and 60 kWh, each generating 250 miles, 400 miles and 600 miles of autonomy, respectively.

The icing on the proverbial cake is its solar panels (three cubic meters in size, 700W), which can charge the vehicle up while it’s parked. This is said to add 37 miles to the range without the need for a plug, while further panels can be added to Aptera’s hood and rear hatch for an additional 24 miles of solar charging per day.

While it remains to be seen if these claimed power figures are achievable in the real world (or indeed outside of the California sun) the Aptera’s efficient powertrain, optimized aerodynamics, and light weight do make it sound appealing as a personal vehicle. I’d personally love to go for a drive.


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