A vision of future car design

Car design, shaped by the needs of the internal combustion engine for a century, is now undergoing
a revolution thanks to developments in battery technology. Guy Bird looks at what we could all be driving in a few years

Imagine a vehicle without the need for a combustion engine under its bonnet and suddenly cars start looking very different from the designs we are used to. Vehicles can dispense with a long-nosed bonnet or a big rear boot and become smoother, more fluid designs. It’s exactly what car-makers have been mulling for more than a decade as they seek solutions to a world that is ambivalent about oil – both for environmental and geopolitical reasons.

Nissan is a good example of one of the car-makers pushing ahead with new powertrains. Its chief executive officer Carlos Ghosn claims, ‘[The] Zero-emission vehicles [sector] is a territory we want to own. Battery [power] and electricity have to be cheaper than the price of oil, but with oil [at the level it is] that’s not difficult.’

Various propulsion technologies have been touted as the successor to the internal combustion engine, but full electric power – as opposed to petrol/electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius – now seems to be a frontrunner, certainly for shorter trips which account for most journeys made in the UK.

Whether sourced from a household plug or car park charging point, or produced via an on-board fuel cell, electric vehicles offer the dream of zero emissions from the exhaust pipe. There are electrically powered vehicles already on sale – the niche G-Wiz city car is the UK’s most high-profile example, but good design seems to have been low on its list of priorities. However, next-generation EVs should have a greater design investment and higher volume aims rather than niche sales – indeed, when talking of Nissan’s plans, Ghosn says, ‘This is not some Stars Wars prototype but mass-market, and not just one car but a whole range.’

General Motors was one of the first to show what was possible with its Autonomy and Hywire fuel cell concept cars back in 2002. Both offered a four-wheeled skateboard-style platform with electric motors in each of the wheels’ hubs. The design of the platform itself was modular enough to allow for various kinds of propulsion •

systems to be placed in it, and also allowed – via a central docking point – differently configurable bodies to be mounted on top. The Hywire had no bonnet, a picture window front windscreen and almost no front overhang aside from crash-safety-related space.

With the Hywire, designed in-house under the guidance of executive director Ed Welburn, now vice-president of GM global design, GM had a hunch that these two concepts would blaze a trail in terms of future car design. As GM vice-president of research, development and planning Larry Burns said at their launch, ‘If our vision is correct – and we think it is – vehicles such as the Autonomy will ultimately reinvent the automobile and our entire industry.’

These concepts also showcased ‘drive-by-wire’ design and technology. This is where an aircraft or videogame-style steering device replaces the traditional hard-metal steering column and foot pedals. Acceleration is via twistable handgrips. All these inputs are communicated electrically instead of mechanically, theoretically allowing the driver to sit almost anywhere in the vehicle. The flat floor and dashboard-free cabin allow almost complete freedom from traditional car interior layout.

Over in Japan, Nissan is promising a bespoke EV four-seater by 2012. Its Mixim concept, shown last year at the Frankfurt Motor Show, imagined what an electric vehicle of 2020 might look like. It offered a Formula One-inspired U-shaped driver control instead of a steering wheel and a ‘three-plus-one’ seating configuration that puts the driver at the centre with two full-size seats slightly further back on each side.

A hint of what Nissan might produce sooner will be shown next week at the Paris Motor Show, in the shape of the Nuvu city car. It will feature a similar layout to the Mixim, with a two-plus-one configuration, suggesting car-makers are looking at smaller and lighter formats beyond the usual five-seat norm.

François Bancon, the man behind the Mixim concept and general manager of Nissan’s exploratory and advance planning department, is adamant that electric power is the only option for this type of car. ‘The young identify with electricity,’ he says. ‘It’s what they use to power computers and iPods. For Mixim, no other power source was considered. In 2015 or 2020 you will be Green or you won’t exist.’

Pininfarina, the Italian coach-builder and styling house better known for designing Ferraris since the 1950s, is planning a zero-emission car, too. Its self-branded, all-electric city car project – slated for production by 2010 – is also due to be unveiled at next week’s Paris show and is expected to take styling cues from the firm’s striking 2004 Nido small car concept.

In ten years’ time, cars you can buy – rather than show-only concepts – could look genuinely different because of zero-emission technology. Not everything will change, though. Pininfarina design director Lowie Vermeersch says, ‘We don’t necessarily need to change shape for the sake of it. Two constants remain: the environment [gravity, air] and the human body and its functions [eyes, hands]. Cars are the result of more than 100 years of evolution.’

The Paris Motor Show runs from 4-19 October

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