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How will electrification affect the way we design vehicles?

Trends in car design get shaken up with each new decade, but the shape vocabulary of automobiles has remained largely the same for a century. Now, the advent of electrification and autonomous vehicles is changing the automotive industry irrevocably. But how will this affect the way cars are designed?

How will electrification affect the way we design vehicles?
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Design is the lifeblood of the automotive industry. The “horseless carriage” began as a leap forward for transporting people and goods, but quickly became a status symbol for the car’s owner, exhibited through the aesthetics of the vehicle. Car owners see their vehicle as an extension of their personality, making purchases in line with their socioeconomic status and their aesthetic preferences.


As soon as the basic engineering requirements of cars were viable for large-scale manufacture (the platform or package), the design process commences. When Alfred P. Sloan took over from Billy Durant as President and CEO of General Motors in 1923, he spearheaded a number of innovations for the company, but his ultimate stroke of genius was the maxim, “A car for every purse and purpose.” GM positioned its five car divisions (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac) to cover five price segments, ranging from low price to luxury, then he set out to solve the question, how do we get consumers to abandon their perfectly good cars to buy a new one? The answer was to invent the annual model change – Sloan even called it “dynamic obsolescence.” Aesthetic styling and design became an integral part of GM’s strategy. With the work of in-house car designer Harley Earl, GM was the first company to take car design away from the engineers and to the styling studio (known initially as the Art and Color Section, and later as the Design and Styling Department).


Early car designs were influenced by aircraft and ships: unidirectional, and pointed in shape to increase aerodynamic or hydrodynamic efficiencies. The shape of the car exterior became a “semantic frame” for speed. Between 1920 and 1930 designers “closed” the body of the car, creating a more distinct interior and exterior, paving the way for a focus on the design of car interiors. “Simply changing the way the space is divided can change the emotional expression of the space for the consumer. The new closed body accentuated by curved glass and privacy had intrinsic value for the consumer.” What began as a marketing ploy to get American consumers to buy cars more regularly, came to define the way we view cars, as objects where aesthetic design embodies personality and status. 


‘The nearest approach to … a new drug … is the drug of speed. Speed, it seems to me, provides the one genuinely modern pleasure’ — Aldous Huxley

Cars became part of the larger modernist art movement, and an aesthetic hallmark of the twentieth century. The recognition that these mass-manufactured consumer objects have an intrinsic aesthetic value can be found in large retrospective exhibitions in the Design Museum and the V&A. While minor variations were made to the contours and interior spaces of different car models, the bullet-shaped body, propelling the driver forward, has remained largely the same.

Panhard Racing 1950 poster image, a press advertisement celebrating the win at Le Mans 1950
Cars are baked into the modern artistic consciousness with connotations of speed, freedom and sex appeal. Image: Panhard Racing poster, a press advertisement celebrating the win at Le Mans 1950.

Fast-forward to 2020, and 40% of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by automobiles. According to one study, road transport is the third-largest cause of CO2 emissions by humanity. New legislation in the EU is setting more stringent standards on CO2 emissions. From 2021 car manufacturers in the EU will face heavy fines unless their fleets meet a fuel economy of 95 grams of CO2 per kilometre. If OEMs do not change their practices at all, the fines could reach €34 million in 2021. For the car manufacturers who do change their processes to meet new legislation, the cost of car production could increase by €1,000 per vehicle.


In Amsterdam, vehicles running on petrol and diesel will be banned by 2030. The UK aims to be net carbon neutral by 2050. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has set up an Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Taskforce and brought in the Ultra Low Emission Zone. He aims to increase the number of electric vehicles on the roads from 20,000 today, to over 330,000 by 2025. The EV Infrastructure Taskforce has worked on installing over 170 rapid charge points across London. Electric vehicles will account for 10% of the global market by the mid-2020s and over 50% of the automotive market by 2040. The shift from internal combustion engines to electric drivetrains for vehicles is a matter of when and not if.


What does this mean for car manufacturers, and for car design? First, the OEMs that have dominated the market since cars became an available consumer product, are now poised to lose the top spot as electric vehicles take prominence. Second, the impact of electrification, autonomous vehicles, the increase of ride-sharing apps and part-ownership of vehicles, will have a drastic impact on how users experience automobiles, and therefore, how they are designed.


Developing an electric car is an expensive endeavour, and the disinterest on the part of traditional car manufacturers to invest in building electric cars has cleared the way for companies like Tesla. In 2017, Renault and Nissan lost the top spot as electric vehicle manufacturers to Tesla. The following year Tesla sold over 220,000 electric cars, 70,000 more than its nearest competitor.


OEMs are fighting back, but it’s an uphill battle. European car manufacturers do not seem eager to get involved in battery-cell manufacturing. It’s difficult to find the right chemistry, to set up the production process and leverage a very different supply chain. This kind of institutional knowledge is lacking in traditional OEMs, and therefore EV companies like Tesla are far more advanced in manufacturing electric motors and lithium-ion batteries than companies like General Motors.


The battery is the single most costly part of an electric vehicle, currently making up 35 – 40% of the total cost. The decision of whether to invest in developing an electric battery, or to outsource to a third-party supplier is the key question for traditional OEMs. If they do, there will be a significant impact on the workforce involved in car assembly. Where conventional drivetrains have over 2,000 components, electric drivetrains have fewer than 20, and the Union of Auto Workers says that many jobs will be lost to non-auto companies to supply parts for electric drivetrains. If an OEM decides not to produce its own battery cells, successful production of electric vehicles will require strong partnerships with battery cell manufacturers. Those that do not will be forced to accept off-the-shelf solutions for vehicle batteries, or fall foul of the inevitable bottleneck when the demand for rare minerals such as cobalt and lithium increases drastically.

Trends in electric-vehicle design - BMW, VW, Nissan, Chevrolet, BYD and Tesia brands of cars
Image: McKinsey, Trends in electric-vehicle design.

How does this affect the design of electric vehicles? For Benoit Jacob, the designer in charge of BMW’s i Series, the aesthetic design “must reflect the character of the vehicle”. The BMW i3, “communicate[s] the message that this vehicle offers a quick way of getting around in an urban environment.” The BMW i8, from a design perspective, is virtually indistinguishable from a car with an internal combustion engine. According to Jacob, “the extremely pronounced wedge shape, sleek lines and low silhouette are charged with dynamism. Our priority was to create a real, tangible sense of aerodynamic prowess, sporty performance and environmental responsibility, all rolled into one.” BMW have not compromised on the sporty, aerodynamic contours which their customers know and love. Reading their marketing on the i8, we find out that BMW focused on increasing aerodynamics, and the placement of motor, engine and lithium-ion batteries give the i8 a lower centre of gravity.


Beyond the immediate frenzy of electrification, car ownership is in decline; the lack of demand is down to younger (urban) consumers, who see car-ownership as a (potentially unnecessary) luxury. It’s largely fuelled by ride-sharing apps who have proven new ground with a reliable business model for shared car ownership. In fact, a study of DriveNow customers found that 37% of car-share users said they decided not to buy a car because of their use of DriveNow, and a further 17% said they had sold their own car, or intended to in the next three months. A study by YouGov found that 43% of Londoners believe that apps like Uber and DriveNow are a genuine alternative to owning a car. 


This is turning the paradigm for car design on its head. Where previously, hundreds or thousands of people would see the exterior of your car, while only a handful might see the interior, now hundreds of people might experience the interior of a car they will only drive a handful of times, and thus its aesthetic form, along with the lifestyle connotations of purchasing a particular brand of car, need not reflect the car owner’s personality. Your “self-concept” is not often reflected in a car that you rent. With these factors growing in importance, there will come a renewed focus on the design of car interiors.


Add in to the mix, the advent of autonomous vehicles. If the car is completely autonomous, will there be a cockpit at all? Zoox is currently developing a bidirectional, driverless vehicle. Omnidirectional drivetrains are already possible, and a vehicle that could turn on the head of a pin is perfectly realisable, but to achieve this we would need to entirely abandon the shape of cars as we know them today. Look at the concept designs for new autonomous electric cars and you’ll see that the “semantic frame for speed”, a cockpit and a driver, hurtling in one direction, has been thrown away. 

Development of forward-looking, shared transportation in a city. Image from Dezeen
Cruise wants to develop forward-looking, shared transportation. Image: from Dezeen.

Autonomous vehicle startup Cruise, has unveiled its first concept car, developed in partnership with General Motors and Honda. Cruise CEO, Dan Ammann has said that in fifty years of car design we’ve seen no real change. “We’re still cramped in a tiny space. We’re still burning fossil fuels, polluting our cities and destroying our planet… We wanted to reimagine transportation as if the car had never existed.” It’s the same length as an average car, but the blocky exterior makes the entry to the vehicle three times larger than a typical car. The seats face each other to encourage conversation among the riders, and there is extra legroom for comfort. The doors slide open, rather than hinge outwards, to ensure safety for cyclists. More importantly, the car’s modular design means component parts can be replaced while reducing waste, and the car will have a lifespan of one million miles (six times greater than the average car).

Gravity Sketch - Jaguar Land Rover’s electric mobility platform for city environments, Image from Jaguar Land Rover
Jaguar Land Rover’s “electric mobility platform” for city environments. Image: from Jaguar Land Rover.

Jaguar Land Rover has released designs for Project Vector, their “autonomy ready”, multi-purpose electric vehicle. The concept car measures four metres in length, “is designed for the city, packaging all its battery and drivetrain components into a flat floor”. More important is the interior cabin space, which “allows seating configurations for private, or shared use and even the opportunity for commercial applications, such as last mile deliveries.”

Citroen’s Ami One's concept of car interior, controlled by the rider’s smartphone - Gravity Sketch
Citroen’s Ami One has a user interface controlled by the rider’s smartphone. Image: from Citroen.

So fundamental are these changes that OEMs aren’t even calling their new designs “cars”. Project Vector has been dubbed an “electric mobility platform” and Citroen’s Ami One concept is described as an “urban mobility vehicle”. Xavier Peugot said the Ami One is “not a car”: it is controlled by the user’s smartphone, it has a top speed of 28 mph, so you won’t need a driving license to operate it, and it uses materials are from “garden furniture and public transport so it can be easily cleaned and maintained.” The Ami One is designed for the 16 – 30 age bracket, for whom car ownership is unnecessary, but mobility on-demand is essential. The Ami One has a totally different user interface to the one we expect from automobiles, and it’s designed around low-cost ride-hailing and shared ownership.

Gravity Sketch - Concept of layers for a ride-sharing vehicle, modelled on an airplane cabin. Image from Dezeen
Layer’s concept for a ride-sharing vehicle is modelled on an airplane cabin. Image: from Dezeen.

The most revolutionary design I have seen is Layer’s concept for an autonomous ride-sharing service – Joyn. Interestingly, this design has taken inspiration once more from aircraft, but from seats in aircraft cabins, rather than the aerodynamic shape of the exterior. Joyn consists of two rows of eight modular seats that face opposite directions. Designed to maximise the rider’s privacy, the “wings” on the top of the seats “can be pushed away from the sitter to open up their field of vision.” The interior is designed to feel human-focused and soft. The vehicle aims to conjoin the convenience of ride-sharing with the luxury comfort of business travel, in journeys of 30 to 60 minutes. Riders will be rewarded for choosing Joyn, earning points each time they ride, which can be exchanged for coffee and retail discounts. The business model aims to incentivise more eco-friendly ride-sharing among consumers.  


All of these concepts look far into the future, but in the medium term there will be a period of integration where autonomous vehicles will co-exist with human-driven cars. Smart cities may have autonomous zones where cars switch to a “driverless mode” upon entering, and use data from the city’s grid, sat nav and traffic reports, to guide the vehicle to a predefined destination. In this integrated world, pedestrians and other drivers will need some way of knowing when there is no driver piloting the vehicle. Perhaps the lights will change colour, or the window tints will change. Certainly, we will need new legislation that sets a minimum standard for visual indicators, built into the design of cars, clearly showing when they are in autonomous or human-piloted modes.


At the beginning of the car market, OEMs used marketing and aesthetics to tap into the consumers’ preoccupations at the start of the twentieth century: mobility, freedom, and individual personality expressed to the outside world through the aesthetics of the products we own. In the twenty-first century, EV and autonomous vehicle manufacturers are tapping into the concerns and priorities of a new generation: durable products, environmental sustainability, affordability and ease of access, over individual ownership. During the transition period in which older, combustion vehicles come to the end of their lifecycle, and are slowly phased out, there will remain some uncertainty among consumers looking into the electric vehicle market. But even during this slow period of adoption, the design of vehicles will change inexorably.


We can see this change reflected in the curriculum of transportation design courses at design schools. More and more, design students are looking not just at the design of a single vehicle, but at designing integrated transport and mobility systems, prioritising user-centred design in a complex interconnected mobility experience. In the near future, the single-owner, combustion engine car will be dethroned, and vehicle design will become one single component among a variety of flexible transport solutions. Cars will cease to be a status symbol and designers will focus more on rider comfort, accessibility and user experience. Correspondingly, the language of OEMs and automotive designers will shift towards these priorities, and this change will be pioneered by new designers, and new manufacturers, entering the industry. 


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