Electrifying Car Designs

Detroit Future electric vehicles will let auto designers express themselves in new and different ways, perhaps recapturing some of the styling lost in recent years. So says a panel of designers, which seems eager to work on what's to come, envisioning what they can do without the styling limits imposed by the likes of an engine in front, a drive axle in the middle and a fuel tank in the rear. The

Detroit — Future electric vehicles will let auto designers express themselves in new and different ways, perhaps recapturing some of the styling “passion” lost in recent years.

So says a panel of designers, which seems eager to work on what's to come, envisioning what they can do without the styling limits imposed by the likes of an engine in front, a drive axle in the middle and a fuel tank in the rear.

The panelists were part of an Automotive Press Assn. program held here in conjunction with Eyes on Design, an annual classic car show at the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House.

As the industry moves closer to producing mainstream electric cars, the designers say EV attributes will spur fresh styling.

“Going pure electric opens up a lot of opportunities for designers,” says Bob Bauer, a stylist for Nissan North America Inc., which plans to introduce an electric car in the U.S. next year.

“The new technology will give us advantages,” says Henrik Fisker, a designer and founder of electric-car maker Fisker Automotive, which launches the Karma plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle this fall. “For instance, you won't have a huge engine in front, so you can design the hood in different ways.”

That includes sealing off the grille — not something done on cars with gasoline engines because of air-intake and cooling needs.

“You don't need that big hole in the grille,” says Douglas Frasher, strategic design chief for Volvo Cars of North America LLC. “Electric will change the look of future cars in a big way.”

That will extend to interiors. EVs use wheel motors, eliminating the need for drive axles and “massive connections,” he tells Ward's. “It clears out a lot of volume between the wheels.”

That, in turn, frees up space for roomier interiors and added storage capacity. “It allows you to put stuff in places you never thought you could,” says Frasher.

Battery packs, the power source of EVs, can be reconfigured in different ways and put in different places to create additional interior space, he says.

For EVs to achieve mainstream status, “there can be no compromises,” says Bob Boniface, a designer for General Motors Corp. “The way to get people in electric vehicles is have those cars being able to carry lots of people and lots of people's stuff.”

EVs aren't new. They've been around more than a century, notes Moray Callum, Ford Motor Co.'s new head designer for the Americas.

He says Henry Ford considered mass producing an electric car but opted to build the Model T instead.

Prototypical EVs of recent years tended to look goofy, like science projects on wheels, because they lacked designer input. Most of those contraptions were designed by the engineers who built them.

That's changed. Top designers now are working on EVs and probing “how design can affect electric vehicles, and how electric vehicles can affect design,” Callum says.

The Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car, due out next year, has design elements that signal what mainstream EVs of the future will look like, he says.

In some ways, EVs should reveal what they are; in other ways, they shouldn't, Boniface says. “People want to broadcast to the world that they are driving something different.”

But such a car shouldn't look like it was designed by someone wearing a beanie hat topped with a propeller, he says. “You need a foot in the mainstream.”

Still, EVs offer designers an opportunity to recharge their creative engines.

“We've lost some of the passion,” Fisker says, referring to ho-hum car designs of recent years. “Designing electric cars is a chance to get some of that passion back.”

Electric cars of the past have been short-lived. Impending ones will enjoy more longevity, Bauer predicts. “This time around, it won't be a flash in the pan. We're seeing a huge shift.”

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