Peter Stevens On Electric Cars

Peter Stevens has asked if electric cars need a new form language. His contention is that at present they either look conventional like the Tesla, or have “a strange self-righteous appearance”. What else does he say?

1900 Lohner Porsche: "Lohner Porsche cars used electric motors mounted within the wheels. That eliminated the weight and friction of a conventional drivetrain. "
1900 Lohner Porsche: “Lohner Porsche cars used electric motors mounted within the wheels. That eliminated the weight and friction of a conventional drivetrain. “

Stevens’ article first appeared at www.formtrends.com but is also republished at Car Design News.  In the article he makes the claim that while electric power might suit buses and van-like vehicles, the format presents too many conflicting requirements to work well:

“The batteries are huge and heavy and like to sit together like school friends; they become very inefficient if they are spread around the car so rather than liberating the designer they restrict new possibilities for vehicle architecture.”

I find this rather surprising. For one thing, petrol and diesel engines also place demands on the vehicle architecture due to their bulk and weight. They also need a fuel store to be secreted somewhere in the vehicle, usually at the rear, inside the axle line.

2014 Nissan Leaf
2014 Nissan Leaf

As a quondam designer I’d argue that design requirements are the grist of the designer’s mill. And conventional cars have not been short of interest despite the various needs they must satisfy. My real worry is that electric power storage is so flexible that it removes the satisfaction that comes of having to solve an aesthetic and technical challenge. Think toasters: a shapeless standard mechanism enclosed in a meaningless plastic casing. No, my feeling is that if electric cars are to be interesting as design objects a few hard challenges can only help.

2011 Suzuki Regina concept car
2011 Suzuki Regina concept car

Stevens asks: “We know that an electric vehicle needs to be very efficient in terms of weight, low aerodynamic drag, low rolling resistance and carefully managed energy use; but shouldn’t all cars be like that?” While it’s a conventional petrol car, the Suzuki Regina concept shows how aerodynamics and efficiency can produce novel and appealing design solutions.

Honda’s recent FCV is also commendably true to its power source while still looking very good indeed. And I’d argue the Nissan Leaf strikes an acceptable balance between understandable forms and an appropriate spaciness. It even has blue lights. Peter Stevens is undoubtedly an experienced and competent designer but his worries appear to me to be unfounded.

2014 Toyota FCV concept
2014 Toyota FCV concept

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

10 thoughts on “Peter Stevens On Electric Cars”

  1. I penned a different response, then read Stevens’ article, which I guess is why you put the link in anyway. What he says is more reasoned that I’d gathered. I totally agree with Richard that parameters are what makes design interesting and challenging. That’s why ‘designs of the future’ where designers contemplate what would happen if we didn’t need glass or wheels, mean nothing to me. And designers who cry ‘legislation’ to explain their lookalike designs are really not trying hard enough.

    However, much of what Peter Stevens says I agree with. He just seems to be pondering the case, rather than coming to conclusions. Engineers are still finding their feet with new technology as much as designers and, at present, apart from the aforementioned battery pack, the packaging needs haven’t changed that much. So they end up making the cars look just like petrol vehicles, not to frighten the punters, or just making them different for difference’s sake, rather than function’s. Neither course is very satisfying.

  2. He does, however, think well of the Twizy which, although fun for a day, has always seemed to me to be fatally compromised. It’s too narrow to seat two in a socially acceptable configuration, side by side, yet too wide to offer any real advantages in city traffic.

    1. ” It’s too narrow to seat two in a socially acceptable configuration, side by side, yet too wide to offer any real advantages in city traffic.”

      I would argue that the first point is irrelevant; if that’s a concern then you’re in the wrong car. On the second, it offers as much advantage in city traffic as is possible for a 4-wheeled vehicle.
      What you’re touching on however is the difficulty of coming up with any new format regardless of the underpinning technology. Cars only come in limited variations on the same shape, and that hasn’t changed for a long time for a good reason.

    2. Speaking as a motorcyclist, I’m always aware that having someone on the pillion rather demotes them to travelling second class. Likewise, giving someone a lift in a Twizy. Talkling over your shoulder, or to the back of someone’s head, is difficult. Of course if the advantages (as on a motorcycle) is making good progress through traffic, that might be a price worth paying. Unfortunately, the Twizy can’t go up the outside of lines of traffic or travel in bus lanes so, unless you are very bad at judging width restrictors, I can’t see the real advantage. I still like it though.

    3. Well you should be concentrating on the road ahead. No talking.

      As for practicality in town, it still has slight advantage when zipping through traffic and negotiating narrow roads, although like you say access to bus lane would be a huge bonus in cities. One thing you should be able to do though is park perpendicular to the curb like a motorbike – maybe not everywhere but at least more often than in a Smart.

    4. “Well you should be concentrating on the road ahead. No talking.”

      Laurent! I certainly come across drivers who shouldn’t drive and do anything else at the same time, but I was considering the august members of DTW and, as is evidenced by our production rate, we thrive on multi-tasking.

      As you point out from the parking advantages, there could be a place for Twizy type vehicles in the city of tomorrow, built with certain parameters in the way that Japanese Kei cars are. But it would involve manufacturers and city planners collaborating and responding quickly. Would that ever happen?

    5. On the first point, I was only joking of course. Talking (to physically present people, not on the phone) should be allowed and even encouraged. Particularly if a trip is seen as an opportunity to enlighten family and friends on motoring matters. If on one’s own smoking is ok too.

      Kei cars are build within the parameters of stringent limitations on footprint and engine size. Surely cars can be designed based on the minimum width of parking in Western cities, without need for planning. Likewise planners/legislators need to take account of the average size of cars when deciding parking space sizes.
      If you wait for both sides to agree on something then nothing will ever get done!

    6. The idea of legislation was imagining that, in a hypothetical city of many short and narrow EVs, special narrower lanes could be reserved as well as dedicated parking areas. That would be the only incentive for me to want to purchase a Twizy or similar. Have i ever seen a Twizy in London? I don’t think so, but I saw four in The New Forest.

      On the first point, second. Talking yes, even when you’re on your own. Smoking, never.

  3. I consider the Twizy as fatally flawed compared to something like the Toyota iRoad tilting vehicle
    which has a smaller footprint and is more dynamic. Having recently used a Piaggio MP3 tilting trike in an urban environment I have become a fan of the concept and look forward to a production version of the iRoad. This is truly a new type vehicle for two something between a motorbike and a small car.

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