For Car Designers, E.V.s Offer a Blank Canvas

Source: By Paul Stenquist, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Frunks are just the start — think Cybertruck, not Focus.

Audi’s Skysphere concept car highlights the short overhangs, long wheelbase and large wheels extolled by Marc Lichte, Audi’s head of design.

The internal combustion engine is exiting stage left. While it provided great transportation and performance thrills for many years, it will no longer play a leading role. In its place under the hood will be, well, very little.

Ready or not, the curtain is going up on electric vehicles, and most of their mechanical components don’t sit where fossil-fuel engines once performed. Electric motors — far smaller than gasoline engines — are mounted between the wheels. A large transmission no longer gobbles up passenger space. No drive shaft is needed, thus no tunnel in the middle of the floor. The rear seat doesn’t have to be positioned to provide room for a fuel tank.

The E.V.’s power source — the battery — is heavy and large but of minimal height. Situated within the area protected by the wheels, it serves as part of the chassis — a structural member. Nearly all the parameters of vehicle packaging have changed.

Given a new and radically different platform on which to build vehicles, designers are rethinking their approach; the sheet metal that adorned gas-guzzlers can be a misfit here.

“A lot of us are still petrol heads, but there’s something exciting about the way cars are evolving,” said Dominic Najafi, the chief exterior designer for Jaguar, which makes the I-Pace electric sport utility vehicle. “We cherish the classic cars, but we welcome the future car.”

To make a profit, the automakers must sell a lot of E.V.s, and maintaining two vehicle categories long term would appear to be financially unsound. Although conventional vehicles will remain in production for a decade or more, no one interviewed for this article mentioned new designs for the old guard.

“One has to think about E.V. design in a somewhat different way,” said Bob Boniface, Buick’s director of global design. “It’s a more efficient form of transportation, so there is an expectation that styling aesthetics reflect that. Traditional grille shapes change due to different cooling requirements; aerodynamic devices and surfacing become more prominent.”

How that translates to the road will be revealed this summer when Buick joins the electric crowd. Like other new General Motors E.V.s, its model will be created on the Ultium modular platform.

Kai Langer, design chief for BMW, sees electrification as an opportunity for designers. “With combustion engines, there was a mandated configuration,” he said. “In this new world, you have different options.”

The size and weight of the battery compel it to be placed low and between the wheels, Mr. Langer said. That allows for a flat floor. The cowl — a structural element between engine compartment and passenger area — can be moved toward the front, increasing interior space.

“From a design standpoint there’s not really a downside to electrification,” said Dave Marek, executive creative director for Acura. He added that his design team was focused on how an automobile relates to the occupants.

“Electrification allows you to embrace the senses more fully,” Mr. Marek said. “I think the customer expects some electrification inside. Maybe in the form of mood lighting.”

Marc Lichte, Audi’s head of design, relishes the opportunities that electrification provides. “It is our enabler to design the most attractive Audis ever,” he said, explaining that short overhangs, made possible by the absence of engine and fuel tank, are an aesthetic advantage. The longer wheelbase required to accommodate a battery is attractive, he added, and so are the large wheels needed to support the weight of the battery.

“Cars with combustion engines had a different character,” Mr. Lichte said. “They were making a sound.”

A traditional automotive etymology is based on animals roaring and combustion engines screaming, he added.

“The styling of I.C.E. cars took inspiration from predators. Holes were needed for breathing; cars became ever more aggressive,” he said. “They were so aggressive they became comic characters. To apply that language and philosophy to electric cars would not make sense at all.”

Although some E.V. designers want their vehicles to be seen as radically new and different with only a nod to the past, Ford views its electrification mission somewhat differently, bringing its legacy models into the future.

“Our strategy has been to electrify our popular nameplates,” said Chris Walter, design manager for Ford’s Mustang Mach-E. “The understanding is that people don’t want it to look like a science project.”

Yet Mr. Walter agrees that the short front overhang and longer wheelbase are loved by designers, so while Ford E.V. designs echo the past, its electrics will take advantage of the opportunity to stretch out.

Most legacy automakers strive to preserve styling cues that represent their brand. For Ford and the Mustang Mach-E, it’s a pronounced rear haunch. And given the sales success of Ford’s F-150 pickup truck, the electric F-150 Lightning must respect that heritage.

Tesla’s Cybertruck looks like a science project. With triangular styling that, according to the automaker, will be teamed with outstanding ability, the truck could help make revolutionary E.V. styling acceptable — if it ever comes to market. Originally slated for a 2020 introduction, it has faced numerous delays.

Some designers see the past as a design resource but draw limits. “Legacy, heritage and pedigree are important,” Mr. Boniface said, “but that doesn’t mean we’re going to go back and make our cars look like modern versions of previous vehicles. I think that’s wrong for our brand. One thing we will take from our past is a spirit of optimism.”

He continued: “Buick was Harley Earl’s playground in the postwar era. It was the Jet Age. Buick embraced technology. It embraced forward thinking and optimism about the future. That was the 1950s paradigm. We are still embracing technology and optimism. That’s what our brand is about.”

Audi sought to preserve what it calls the single-frame design of its traditional front fascia but said the look would progress.

BMW’s designers aim to maintain elements of their classic front-end styling as well. Mr. Langer said eliminating that look would be “like asking an artist to start drawing people without noses.”

With no history of fossil-fuel vehicles to color its thinking, the upstart E.V. maker Lucid is not bound to tradition. Its Lucid Air lacks even a hint of the large grille and gaping front air intakes typical of luxury cars. One might say it was drawn without a nose.

“It is an advantage to not have to create a legacy front end,” said Derek Jenkins, the senior vice president of design and brand for Lucid.

Lucid designers started planning the look of their electric vehicle in 2015. They recognized that their first offering would have to be firmly anchored in the luxury segment, in part to justify the sticker price. But the luxury market was characterized by long hoods and imposing grilles — elements that seemed counterintuitive to E.V. design.

“How do we create something that has a strong identity, yet still looks worthy of the luxury price point? It was a challenge,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Ultimately we embraced it. We didn’t have to work around a legacy identity. We saw that as an advantage, an opportunity to create a vehicle that looked nontraditional but not weird.”

The Lucid team took advantage of starting with a clean sheet. According to Mr. Jenkins, the Lucid Air has the largest “frunk,” or forward trunk, of any consumer-aimed E.V. With its thin battery pack positioned as low as possible in a chassis designed for electrics, the car is low and sleek.

Range weighs heavily for potential buyers, and a vehicle that can slice through the air effectively can go farther on a single charge.

“Aerodynamics are a major contributor to range, and if you’re going to convince more people to go electric, it has to have range,” Mr. Jenkins said. (Lucid is a leader, by miles, on that front.)

Mr. Lichte said that once he had chosen three design concepts for the Audi e-Tron GT from among those submitted by a team of 20 stylists, he asked the winning designers to build quarter-scale models and test them in a wind tunnel. The aerodynamically cleanest of the three went into production.

The result is unmistakably Audi, evocative of traditional forms and amenities in its grand touring sheet metal and luxurious electronic interior, but revolutionary in its power and efficiency. Touchstones to which those who design our cars will most likely aspire.