Electric shift

Vehicles powered by electricity provide an opportunity for a complete rethink of car design, as well as a host of environmental benefits. So why are people so reluctant to embrace this potentially transformative innovation? asks John Stones

There’s a lot of resistance, if you forgive the pun, to electric cars. A woman tragically died a few weeks ago after crashing a G-Wiz, and this will only have confirmed popular misconceptions that electric vehicles are in some way not proper cars – that they are undesirable, impractical and even dangerous.

But a new wave of EVs that will challenge people’s preconceptions is about to take to the streets. And one of the places that this is happening is in the North East of England. A charging infrastructure is being put in place and, earlier this year, Nissan announced it was going to build the Leaf, the first mainstream EV, in Sunderland. Regional development agency One North East – due to close in a couple of years – has been busy bringing various groups together to capitalise on the local expertise in electric vehicle technologies.

One of these groups is the High Value Low Carbon design unit, founded by Matteo Conti, senior lecturer of transportation design at Northumbria University School of Design, along with colleague Stuart English. The development agency has laid the foundations for universities and industry to talk to each other.

A recent collaboration is the car that Conti’s students have co-designed for local company Avid Vehicles. Called the Cue-V (compact urban electric vehicle), it can either be a five-seater hatchback or a small van. The vehicle is aimed primarily at institutions and companies, and small-scale production is about to begin after successful testing.

’EV design is still in its early days,’ Conti says, admitting that the design has some way to go to catch up with the innovative underlying technological developments. ’Rather than just styling, we need to understand and modify the product semantics – the front grill, for instance, isn’t needed to cool the engine, so the face can be changed to convey the fact that it is an advanced vehicle,’ he says.

This can be seen in both the Cue-V and Nissan Leaf, but beyond details such as this, design has a crucial role to play in changing what Conti describes as ’false perceptions’ of EVs being slower and less safe or desirable than conventional cars. ’We need to let people know they can have a lovely experience,’ he says. ’We are not going to get rid of the traffic problem, unfortunately, but if we can make the interior an extension of the living room, the experience of being stuck in jams can be made a bit less of a horrible experience. There are many new ways of making interiors interactive and of making the experience more pleasurable – this doesn’t mean new electronic gadgets, but technologies that will improve life within the car and make it safer.’

As well as accepting the contrast in sensual experience between EVs and cars, the whole way in which people approach vehicles will have to change. ’People will have to get used to the idea of leasing or hiring the car or battery, but they will come round,’ says Conti. ’We have become used to charging our phones overnight and we can learn to do the same with our cars.’

The jump from mobile phones to smart phones was significant, but people adapted quite quickly, he points out, suggesting the marketing of EVs should follow mobile phones, iPads and other IT products rather than traditional automotive advertising. He describes Renault’s forthcoming Twizy as ’amazing’ – a breakthrough design that might very well make the category fashionable.

EVs are such a wholesale change that design intelligence needs to be brought to the entire process, not just the vehicle itself. One example of this is a carrying device that allows people to bring the car battery pack into their home for recharging, a prototype for which has been developed together with the Institute for Automotive and Manufacturing Advanced Practice at the University of Sunderland.

Another idea is an electronic screen on the sides of vans that could carry advertising. ’There’s an opportunity to offer some very sophisticated design options,’ Conti points out.

The burgeoning electric car industry of the North East is very much a story of our times, struggling with Government cuts and conflicting ecological imperatives. But its success could benefit us all.

Forthcoming electric vehicles

Manufacturers are falling over themselves to present electric concept vehicles at motor shows, but actually producing production-ready plug-in electric cars is a very different business. The current offer is based around niche vehicles, which fall either into the city car category, such as the G-Wiz, or the expensive sports car category, such as the Tesla.

The good news is that mainstream everyday EVs are about to become available to the public. In design terms, most of these cars – including the Nissan Leaf, Vauxhall/Opel Ampera and the Renault Zoe – tread the line between futurism and convention. But the radical Renault Twizy could blow open the category.

While all these cars come from manufacturers with a utilitarian brand philosophy, other manufacturers are also keen to get in on the act. Most notably, BMW has surprised many by announcing that its Vision Efficient Dynamics concept car will be put into production by 2013. Alongside the offerings from more established names is a variety of smaller players, including Croation outfit DOK-ING and its XD, and British company Nemesis, which will be hoping to catch the major players napping.

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