As electrified vehicles become more prominent, so will questions of design. Design has always played a major role in differentiating brands and offering customers something that appeals to their tastes and sense of identity. But it brings new opportunities and challenges for EV car designers.
“When electric cars started becoming a thing, they were about screaming, ‘I’m electric! I’m electric! Look how weird I am,’” Ralph Gilles, Stellantis’s chief design officer, said at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. “The market has proven that’s not what consumers want. They want a handsome car that reflects their personality.”
With EVs, many items essential to a gas-burning car are absent, such as an internal combustion engine, a long driveshaft, muffler and tailpipe. No engine means there is no need for a grille to bring in cooler air. That gives EV designers the freedom to do something else with that space. But what, exactly? Sometimes, the choice is dictated by what people already know and like.
“[The front end is] still grillish because your mind is conditioned to expect some kind of grille in a car so some manufacturers are choosing to keep that going,” said Gilles. “In the case of our [Jeep] Wagoneer KX, it’s a faux grille, but it’s there for character. For branding. You know exactly what the car is. So we’re able to use a grille in a fun way now, whereas before it was seriously about square inches for cooling.”
The replacement of larger, hotter halogen light bulbs with smaller LED ones also opens up design possibilities. “Lighting is going to be the new identity. Every company will have some signature lighting,” said Chris Coutts, senior exterior designer at Kia Motors’ California Design Centre in Irvine, Calif. “We can make the cars look different based on the thinness of the lighting.”
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Gilles echoes those thoughts. “Our brands are willing to spend more money on lighting because it’s one of the most effective ways to give the car character,” he said.
All of these changes mean more freedom for designers, but also new obstacles. One of the major objectives in car design is improving aerodynamics to eke out more range.
“The biggest challenge is finding unlimited ways to manage air flow over the car,” said Simon Humphries, head of global design for Toyota and Lexus in Los Angeles. “From a design point of view, this is an unfortunate reality. We can’t get away from air. We have to push it out of the way and we have to do it as efficiently as possible. The reality is there aren’t that many ways to do that. We know the answers and those answers don’t necessarily translate into a good-looking car.”
On the revamped 2023 Toyota Prius, Humphries replaced the awkward angles of the past with a sleek, streamlined and aerodynamic body, and a cut, short rear end, which allows the air to release from the vehicle efficiently.
Another aerodynamic design tweak is making the door handles flush with the body. “You can thank Tesla for that because they did it first and now we’re all doing it,” Coutts said. “It’s partially for aerodynamics, but it’s also a cool technology. Your car senses you’re coming to it and the door handle automatically pops up. That’s exciting, right?”
The hardest thing, Gilles said, is the packaging of battery packs. “On the Challenger, it’s quite challenging to pack the battery and then the people. It’s like a sandwich: If you get too tall, the sandwich just looks awkward.”
Interiors will change drastically too, designers say, as we move toward autonomous vehicles. Front trunks and living-room-like cabins will be predominant, said Coutts. On concept cars, manufacturers are already showing swivelling seats, steering wheels and gear shifters that disappear, and fewer buttons, switches and dials. Instead, technology with advanced voice-recognition systems and hand-gesture features will be commonplace. Gilles calls it “techification.” His global user experience team of 65 consists mostly of “kids who were designing video games and playing video games in their parent’s basements,” he says.
Even before autonomous vehicles arrive, changes are afoot: On EVs without a long driveshaft, floors can be made flat and batteries stored below them, leaving the cabin and cargo area a blank canvas for designers.
“It’s about giving the car personality in a different way; it’s not about horsepower any more. Now the sensation happens through the connectivity systems and the materials,” said Gilles. And “detoxifying” the interior is critical. That means making the cabin more calming with less clutter and removing redundancies such as multiple ways to turn on the volume. “We’re still analog beings and most consumers want a minimal amount of buttons for quick access because it is sometimes easier to reach over without looking. Having a button-free interior, which we could do right now, requires a learning curve, which some customers don’t mind – they find it exciting. But others are really [annoyed]. We’re trying to find that balance,” he said.
For sustainability reasons, say goodbye to leather and chrome, too. “For a hundred years, we used leather, chrome and wood to make things look expensive. All of those are going to disappear because they’re not particularly environmentally friendly,” said Toyota’s Humphries.
“The biggest thing we’re doing is not coating things as much – leaving them raw as they are. That takes education for the customer to accept an unpolished material,” said Gilles. “Maybe the new luxury is less. Detoxifying, more sustainability, is an attractive idea to a new, young, [environmentally] conscious consumer.”
The company can simulate the look of chrome with particles in plastic. Or, in an effort to be more sustainable, it can use pressed sawdust or cork materials, he said.
“But it’s not just a case of finding material to replace plastic, it’s also having that acceptance from the customer point of view and the way they perceive those materials,” said Humphries. “The biggest challenge is building a new icon for the customer, so the customer says ‘If I’ve got this in my car, then this means it’s an expensive car.’ The symbolization is a huge challenge.”