TTake any gas car sold today and show it to a mechanic who worked on a Ford Model T 100 years ago and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll have a pretty good idea of how it works. A combustion engine at the front spins the wheels, carrying a driver behind a steering wheel, some passengers and luggage.
The advent of electric cars changes everything. The shape of the car is no longer so rigidly determined by bulky engines, exhaust ducts or drive shafts. At the same time, digital technology promises to replace everything from rear-view mirrors to human drivers. The automotive industry has never had to cope with so many changes at once.
All of these changes will come to a head over the next few years, says Adrian van Hooydonk, Head of Design at the BMW Group. Automakers’ key concerns will be electric power and the integration of rapidly evolving digital technology – all while improving environmental sustainability. “It’s going to be a reinvention,” he says.
Here are some of the most noticeable changes we can expect.
Even the lack of an internal combustion engine is noticeable. Look at the front of a Tesla and one thing becomes clear: no grille is needed to supply air to the engine.
Rival manufacturers (catching up with Tesla, the world’s most valuable automaker) are using newfound design freedom to offer models like the Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Honda e, which opt for smaller but more powerful lights in a package with retro-futurism, that could have been seen in a 1980s sci-fi movie.
But the changes will go well beyond superficial styling. Electric cars are built with a “skateboard” design, with a flat bed of batteries and wheels and motors at both ends. Electric motors are also smaller than bulky combustion engines, so there is no longer a large bonnet in front of the driver.
US startup Canoo is one of the most notable examples of this. Its “lifestyle vehicle,” which could be delayed until early next year due to supply chain issues, will have a particularly flat front end that gives it a boxy shape, unlike most modern cars.
In part, however, aerodynamic considerations still govern. British van startup Arrival initially envisioned a vertical windscreen, but eventually settled on a more traditional sloping front design as drag reduced the vehicle’s range.
More interior space
The skateboard means electric cars tend to be a few inches taller, and many automakers first started out with bulky sport utility vehicles (SUVs) so they could hold more batteries. But there is more space for passengers.
In cars with internal combustion engines, “the mechanics took up an enormous amount of space in the overall area,” says Mark Adams, design director at Vauxhall-Opel. What that space is repurposed for in an electric vehicle then “really depends on the individual vehicle and what you’re trying to do as a brand.”
Citroën, one of Vauxhall’s stablemates under the Stellantis conglomerate, has already shown an option: the Ami is a tiny, no-frills two-seater for zipping around town. It will launch in the UK later this summer for less than £8,000.
In France, the Ami can be driven without a license from the age of 14.
Adams thinks the electric revolution could finally reverse the trend toward larger SUVs. “The days of ever-growing cars are over,” he says. “We don’t need big cars anymore.”
Fewer car parts
Producing zero exhaust emissions isn’t the only big change in how cars look and feel. Reducing end-of-life waste is increasingly seen as crucial for automakers, and that means using fewer parts with less complicated material mixes wherever possible.
For example, a car’s front grille may contain 10 to 15 pieces, so not having them means fewer complications in repair or recycling. BMW’s i Vision Circular showed how a car can be made with just seven materials – all recyclable. Achieving this on a large scale, however, will be another matter.
Forget the steering wheel
The most noticeable lack of future cars will eventually be the steering wheel. Driverless cars are already covering millions of miles on the road, and it seems inevitable that largely or fully autonomous cars (known in industry jargon as Level 4 and Level 5) will come to market—at some point.
“Then when you switch it to fully autonomous, you don’t necessarily have to stay in the same position,” says Vauxhall’s Adams. “We’re all looking at this space.”
“One big thing changes 100 smaller things,” he adds. Less driving means less need for easily accessible controls, so cars are swapping airplane cockpits cluttered with knobs and switches for a cleaner look that’s more leisure-focused.
Overall, digitalization will influence car design even more than electrification, says van Hooydonk.
Living room on wheels
Canoo calls its US-focused model a “loft on wheels,” while Korean automaker Hyundai’s Seven concept car features rotating lounge chairs and bench seating, which it calls a “living room on wheels.” It’s clear that some cars are treated more like extensions of the home, moving around randomly when drivers are free to do other things.
All that free time on the go can give people more time for other activities. Cinema style projectors or virtual reality entertainment are two options in the works. Auto consultancies and big tech companies from Apple and Alphabet to Spotify and WeChat believe the car will be the next place where they can sell a wide range of services including movies, games and music.
Eventually, interiors could move from “living room” to “bedroom,” although putting beds in place of seats in cars poses tricky safety issues. Still, the idea of going to bed at home and waking up at work, or even in another country, is no longer a Jetsons-style pipe dream.
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