Do Electric Cars Need A New Design Language?

When the earliest cars appeared around 110 years ago the energy source could be electric, steam, petrol or diesel. Pioneer motorists were at first so delighted with the new mobility that it took some time before petrol became the most efficient choice. At that time cars (usually called ‘horseless carriages’) did look like horse drawn vehicles without the horse. There was little difference between how a steam car looked compared with a petrol car.

The appearance of the motorcar based on its intended use slowly evolved into three types. The Town Car, closed bodied and very formal looking, the Touring car, open topped and lighter in weight, and the sporting car, stripped down for speed. The earliest race cars were derived from these sporting cars.

In the 1920s smaller, more mass market, cars added to this list. During this period cars were almost always defined by their engine power and vehicle taxation class; for example the Vauxhall 30/98, a very sporting car had a 4.2-liter engine of 98 horsepower and was in a taxation class for 30hp car. The way of calculating the 30hp was complex and restricted technical development, nothing surprising there since politicians were involved!

Today we have so many different and confusing messages that come from the form of the car. Marketing departments are constantly looking for what they hope will be a new market segment and they then require designers to develop a new design or form language to support that niche product.

The first Renault Espace successfully defined the MPV, or multi-purpose vehicle, as new vehicle type, rather than being a converted van. The Espace was more product design than styling exercise, it looked modern rather than futuristic, and functioned as the form suggested. I suspect that many male customers of MPVs feel emasculated by the practicality of these vehicles and so drive them as though they are sports cars. The marketing men have spotted this behavior and are demanding that designers make their MPV look sporty.

The same thing is happening with 4x4s and Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs). And now we have the arrival of electric and possibly hydrogen-powered vehicles, the marketing men must be in a great state of confusion.

Many designers thought that these new energy systems would liberate them to find a new source of design creativity but nervous car company employees — from CEOs to salesmen — don’t know how to sell these new technologies or what they should look like. It could just be that whilst bikes and busses are ideal machines for efficiently using electric power, the electric car has to satisfy too many conflicting requirements to be viable. The batteries are huge and heavy and like to sit together like school friends, they become very inefficient if they are spread around the car so rather than liberating the designer they restrict new possibilities for vehicle architecture.


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