Tesla Model S front trunk

Challenging Packaging Preconceptions in the Electric Car Age

For electric cars based on regular internal combustion-engined (ICE) models, this is a bit understandable — the standard VW Golf was designed with a grille and they are not going to change that for the electric versions. But what about clean sheet ground-up dedicated electric cars?

The Tesla S has its electric motor behind the rear seats and no radiator at all, but it still has a long hood and a large grille-like shape at the front, until recently in a contrasting black finish. Lift the hood and you find a front trunk, smaller than the conventional one in the back. They have kept the aesthetic of a regular front-engined ICE car despite the package underneath being fundamentally different, and then they’ve filled the redundant space with extras, much like phone manufacturers started doing a decade ago.

Tesla Model S front trunk

This dissonance between the external shape and the internal package is only going to become more pronounced as the electric car reaches that ‘Aspirin Point’.

Right now there are all sorts of components inside electric cars; batteries, control systems, motors, chargers, and there is no generally accepted order about where these pieces go as there is with ICE cars. A lot of these systems are becoming smaller though.

As this happens all accepted car design practice goes out of the window. What is the ‘hood’ for if not to house an engine? Why should the windscreen be so far back? Why should the passenger cell just be between the wheels? Why should the luggage area be at the back?

All of these premises are based on the basic vehicle layout that is shared between the Ford Focus and the Model T. None of them should be a factor when the base platform is as naked as a well-packaged electric chassis is.

Tesla Model S platform

The shape of the vehicle can now be disconnected from the mechanical package and, much like the aspirin tablet, now exists only to serve the user requirements. A whole raft of new possibilities is opened up and the sky really is the limit.

For the foreseeable future though, electric cars will continue to look like cars as we know them. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that it will take time for designers and engineers to start to take advantage of their new freedoms and to find new aesthetics and proportions and fresh solutions to the fundamental problems that all cars are trying to solve. The second — and the main reason — is that it’s market-led.

Tesla very deliberately chose a conservative design route. The Tesla S is a pretty car, but the proportions and styling are quite conventional considering how revolutionary the car is underneath. Their rationale was that the whole idea of an electric car was scary enough for consumers and they were reluctant to add to this fear with an unconventional looking car. They felt that buyers needed to be able to see it next to a BMW 5 Series and consider it a rational alternative rather than something wildly different.

Tesla Model S profile

Over time this will change.

The original cars were, quite literally, horseless carriages. It took about 25 years for the car to develop an aesthetic of its own, unshackled to the history of the coachbuilder’s craft. Electric cars will go through a similar process, slowly losing their fake grilles and long hoods as we gradually stop associating these features with speed and power.

The result should be fantastically different looking cars, the kind until now only seen in Sci-Fi movies. That’s unless, of course, the industry goes the way of the telephone and unimaginatively keeps the old form factor and just fills the empty spaces with new features. In many ways, it will be the consumer who decides.


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