As horses began to be supplanted by steam, electricity and petrol at the end of the 19th century, a contraption was born which, for better or worse, we have been in love with ever since. These horseless carriages, despite heralding a momentous shift, did, however, look little different.
Now, more than a century on, the ecological disaster that this love affair is contributing to has forced another rethink. While horses are unlikely to make a comeback, another of the initial power sources – electricity – is once again being taken seriously by car-makers. And again, the question is whether the design of these new carriages will be any different.
After much puff, it’s clear that 2010 will be the year that the EV – or electrical vehicle – becomes a mainstream reality. (In contrast, 2009 was the year of the faux pas – the launch of the ultra-luxurious, gas-guzzling Aston Martin Rapide and Porsche Panamera, both conceived to attract bankers’ bonuses at the height of the bubble.) With its notoriously long lead times, the automotive industry is very slow to respond, but when Volkswagen says the next Golf – Europe’s best-selling car – will be electric, and Mercedes has promised a plug-in electric version of its top-of-the-range S-Class limousine, the tide has surely turned.
Three companies, however, have stolen a march with mainstream EVs that will go on sale this year – the Nissan Leaf, the Chevrolet Volt and the Mitsubishi iMiEV. Other smaller manufacturers are also getting in on the act. The Smera, a tiny city car from French company Lumeneo, was launched last year in Paris, and further dealerships around Europe are promised this year, while in California Fisker, the new automotive brand established by former Aston Martin designer Henrik Fisker, will start deliveries of its Karma, a beautiful, luxurious plug-in electric luxury sports car.
The main emphasis so far has been on the political and ecological imperatives, followed closely by the engineering and technological advances, notably in battery design (lithium ion in particular) that have made electric cars a mainstream possibility rather than a fringe niche.
But now the design challenge – to produce a desirable and useful EV that does justice to the new underpinnings – is really on, and car design is entering an exciting new phase. Totally new packaging concepts are possible and there is no reason why cars need to look as they currently do. With the interiors of the EV, the status quo is also being questioned in response to new needs and (much simplified) controls.
The 1956 Suez Crisis had previously spurred designers on to some highly original micro car creations. One of the most notable (and hilarious) was the Peel Trident, designed on the Isle of Man by Cyril Cannell, while the Isetta (a brand BMW is rumoured to be reviving for its own ‘megacity’ project) was one of the most popular.
Current design strategies of EVs fall into three camps, which can loosely be described as retro, futuristic and in denial. In many cases, manufacturers have been hedging their bets, producing both ultra-conservative and daringly radical EVs, justifiably, perhaps, as no one yet knows where the sweet spot lies. Here are some of the most notable of current EV projects in each of the categories.
Much like digital cameras, which didn’t really need to look anything like their film forbears, a popular design strategy is to pretend that nothing much has changed. Playing safe doesn’t scare the horses, as it were, and doesn’t add further barriers to adoption. This, no doubt, is the thinking behind the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, both on sale in the US later this year. The exterior of both only very vaguely communicates the radical technology that lies beneath.
The Fisker Karma, similarly, is just a beautiful sports car – its electrical underpinning simply allows a further accentuation of the current cues of performance and luxury. Likewise, Honda’s hybrid CR-Z, which will also be launched later this year, tries just to be another sporty little car despite its technological difference.
All four, however, are a much more sophisticated response than the forthcoming Mini E and Smart ED, which just inelegantly slot batteries and an electric drivetrain into existing designs.
One of no doubt many EVs to be launched at the upcoming Geneva Motor Show in March, the Rinspeed UC (no, not ‘uncut’, but as in ‘you see’ or ‘urban commuter’) takes the popular retro route, evoking the original Fiat 500 in a way that embarrasses Fiat. The Swiss company’s design focus has gone into the way the car is used (it can be loaded on to trains) rather than the neat retro exterior styling.
Another small Swiss company, Mindset, has a more radical retro take with its EV penned by former VW designer Murat Günak, which combines the lines of 1950s Italian sports cars and skinny bicycle wheels. Honda, meanwhile, has gone the whole hog with its EV-N concept, presented at the Tokyo Motor Show, which draws quite explicitly on its diminutive 1960s N360 for inspiration.
Honda and Renault have put out some of the most daring designs, as well as some of the most predictable. The Personal-Neo Urban Transport (P-nut), designed by Honda’s Los Angeles studio and presented at the LA Motor Show last month, shows the radicalthinking, both inside and outside, that EVs could inspire. Renault’s Twizy ZE looks more radical still, yet is set to hit the streets in a year or so. When designs like this are on our roads, things will finally have moved on.