Leading the Charge

Electric cars are coming. But when are we going to be presented with one we might actually want to buy?

Coming never to an Audi dealer near you. AiCon. Image: autoblog

During a recent conversation with an automotive design commentator and critic I pointed out that motor manufacturers had so far failed to create a truly desirable electric car. He agreed, suggesting they appear stuck at the Blackberry phase and that their i-phone moment has yet to occur. He isn’t wrong, as this week’s deluge of concepts and production cars illustrates. On one extreme we have Audi’s Frankfurt-fodder Aicon, which as implausible flights of conceptual fancy go, is about on point and on the other we have the 2018 Nissan Leaf, which takes retrenchment to new levels of jaded whatever.

One of the advantages of a pure electric car is that by taking the engine and powertrain out of the equation, the entire architecture of the vehicle can potentially be reimagined. Without a conventional powertrain to package, the beltline of the vehicle can be made lower, both pedestrian and occupant safety can be improved, the frontal area can be reduced, giving designers new proportions to play with.

This is the future? 2018 Nissan Leaf. Image: nissannews

That no production electric car has so far made good use of this says volumes about the institutional conservatism of the motor industry, to say nothing about customer’s fear of the unfamiliar. Returning for a moment to the 2018 Nissan Leaf, I fail to see any reason to purchase a vehicle trying so desperately hard to pass itself off as a mildly facelifted Pulsar – (not that there’s anything terribly wrong with a Pulsar if you like that sort of thing). Looks aside, (and to be frank a new Micra is more arresting to the eyes) why is a pure EV packaged and proportioned like a FWD hatchback?

It’s difficult to escape the notion that Nissan’s product planners concluded that the outgoing car alienated customers who found it too outlandish in appearance and pushed for a more normalised aesthetic for its successor. The outgoing Leaf failed to add up to an attractive whole, but you got the sense Nissan tried. It was a design that I think people wanted to like, but simply found they couldn’t. Perhaps by playing it safe, they will sell a few more, but my feeling is that early-adaptors still want a visual receipt for their pains, which the new Leaf just doesn’t provide.

Honda Urban EV. Image: guide auto

Returning for a moment to proportions and the possibilities electric propulsion could offer car designers, I dangle before you the delightful Honda Urban EV concept, said to form the basis of a production car to launch in two year’s time. Now, Honda has been here before with the electric 2009 EV-N concept and the more contrived (if still amusing) combustion engine N-ONE Kei-car of 2012. But I really don’t quite know where to begin when it comes to how much I love this concept.

Honda Urban EV. Image: autoblog

Look at that low beltline, the tiny overhangs, the slim pillars, the relatively large glass area, those delightful details. It is neat, compact, friendly and utterly charming and I fear, highly unlikely to see the light of day in any meaningful form, regardless of what Honda are saying now. Especially in the wake of news that VW are questioning the future of their UP! family of small cars.

Another reason I have my doubts about Honda translating this into a production car can be illustrated by a cursory glance at their current styling direction – (if indeed it can be called that). Take the Clarity EV for example – (a car I desperately wanted to like) – which is far from the worst offender by the way. Marks for attempting to change the conversation but marks lost for sloppy proportions and another ginormous front overhang. It also appears to have escaped Honda’s notice that its styling appears to offer the diametric opposite of what its name suggests. As for its combustion engined range, the relevant adjectives have yet to be coined.

Honda Clarity. Image: carscoops

So here we are, two years down the road from VW’s unintended paradigm-shift and with the entire motor industry frantically trying to learn an entirely new business model on the hoof, perhaps design is not their top priority. But if the car industry is to bring customers with them on their electrified journey into the promised dreamscape, they better get a grip on the visuals, and show some design leadership. Making them a little friendlier wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

23 thoughts on “Leading the Charge”

  1. It’s “early adOPTErs” (no hyphen needed), though I like the pun in “adaptor”. Was it intended?

  2. There seems to be quite a lot of desire for the Tesla Model 3. Doesn’t modern safety legislation mandate certain “hard points”, thus limiting the scope of the designer’s fancy? I don’t know, I am asking the question in the hope that someone more knowledgeable here can answer.

  3. The Honda Urban EV reminds me of a mark 1 golf GTi. Especially from the rear three quarters view where the C pillar is slimmer but has very similar proportions.

  4. Richard: That’s a good answer and of course you’re right, but if the legislation says that the bonnet line has to be a certain height for pedestrian safety then the most gifted designer in the world isn’t going to be able to conjure up a low bonnet line.

    1. My understanding is that there is a certain minimum distance required between bonnet and the hard bits underneath in order to meet pedestrian safety requirements. So, if you don’t have a lumpy engine there, it should be possible to make the front much slimmer. In fact, I think the Tesla 3 does quite a good job in this – the front is comparatively low and short.

      I have to join the Honda Urban EV fan club here. Such a pure design – I really hope that this is a reference point for future Honda design.

  5. I totally agree with Eoin, the Honda Urban EV is a delight and I too absolutely love it. Yes, it does have overtones of the early Golf, but I think the early Civic and N600 from Honda’s own back-catalogue are more relevant, as is ASIMO, Honda’s walking robotic R&D money-pit. This car steels the Frankfurt show and I am dying to see Honda build it … please, please, please with the same proportions, surfacing, and glass house, even if the LED lighting trickery and messaging display have to go (I’d be very happy to see the latter disappear without trace, ditto the quartic wheel that adorns the interior). It’s just a lovely thing (have I managed to convey that?) and, hopefully it marks a new direction for Honda’s designs in general.

  6. I totally dislike the Honda concept! It’s of traditional two box proportions so nothing new there,the wheels are too large and protrude beyond the body requiring body bulges that are not in keeping with its intended city use however this is just a style job and not a practical production car.
    BMWs i3 and the Tesla are better examples of electric drives influence on the shape of future cars with battery placement the largest component being at floor level. This layout together with motors eventually moving into the wheels will allow body designs that would be independent of the lower power module much like the GM sled proposals of a few years back.
    Plenty of scope for various occupant configurations plus inhanced crash protection including pedestrians.
    As always the industry has to tread carefully due to buyers conservatism.

    1. D: I can fully understand your engineer´s analysis of the Honda. The form language says something like small sports hatch and whatever happened to the idea of flush bodysides? Counterpoint now: there is a place in the market for quite a wide variety of expressions, forms of electric car and Honda have decided to use this stark industrial design language (it looks like it is a Braun product from the Dieter Rams era) to signal to the customer some kind of difference. You could argue that cD matters very little to a city car anyway so why not splash out a bit on some flamboyant wheel-arches? It´s not the car I would have designed – the i3 and Leaf seem to wear their high-tech more openly. The Tesla was a brilliant move – to wrap unknown engineering under deeply conventional style. Whoever planned that strategy earned their salary that year.

  7. I’d class the Tesla Model S as a desirable electric car. It attracts criticism for its design (too bland, too generic, fake grille etc) but I quite like its lack of glitz and aggression. It’s a good bit of work, in my view – and aspirational.

    The original Leaf, in contrast, is an apologetic and limp piece of design… the sort of thing that Peugeot were signing off in the late 1990s and 2000s. Its replacement may be derivative but frankly anything would be an improvement.

    There have been a number of concept cars over the years that break from the conventional. The recent VW concept is a good example – it is shaped like a kind of softened brick. But so long as you require an aerodynamic shape and a human to drive it, it seems cars will broadly have some sort of ‘bonnet’ and a fast windscreen angle, regardless of the drivetrain. Pedpro requirements are also a factor.

  8. Gosh, I need to buy an EV soon or be square, apparently. Unhip to the max. All these car companies falling over themselves to hop on the train of perceived eco-goodness means we are about to be subjected to a societal change of some magnitude. Mountains (actually dried lakebeds in the main) will be moved to obtain lithium for batteries. The Chinese are likely to lead that charge because there’s a pile sitting around within its borders. Chile will soon be overrun as US companies try to buy up another major source of supply. Dig it up and sell it. Ruin the landscape, why not?

    Add to that all the rickety Mark 1 autonomous driving systems shortly to be inflicted on us all, and life will not be the same, whirring around glued to 3D screen experiences while some robot looks after the piloting duties, using sensors from the lowest bidder supplier. Magnifique! Will I be happier? Will the energy costs involved in making giga upon gigawatthour of battery capacity reflect lower overall CO2 injection into the atmosphere? Where will the oil for synthetic rubber tyres and the plastic interiors come from? Piffling trifles to consider as we rush towards a new dawn. As someone said, if EVs were the norm, how well would the Florida evacuations have gone last week? And now in the aftermath and millions without electric power for weeks, how would people charge up EVs to get around for a keg of nails and a bit o’lumber for basic repairs when they cannot even get their phones topped up? I swear it’s all a plot to rid society of excess population! And yet it’s all part of a vicious circle no matter what we do. Simply too many people wanting a life of ease, not enough resources.

    Harumph.

    I am, sir, you most obt. servant
    Brigadier General RKD Whittaker DSO and Bart (ret’d)
    The Honeysuckles
    Great Hornswoggle, Devon

    And I could be a complete prat and arrive at my destination in that new BMW EV monster introduced at Frankfurt, replete with blue grille outline. How twee. Or, Mercedes showed me the EQA, a simply divine vehicle. All reeks of desperation to me, desperation caused by nobody having a clue what to do except perhaps Honda.

    1. It’s pretty clear to me that human progress – even survival – will require a drastic reduction in the use of oil. We are facing climate catastrophe as it is.

      In just 50 years we have polluted the entire planet with plastic. We simply have to find alternatives.

      There are still many questions to answer with electric vehicles but for the first time the car need not be dependent on the oil industry. This is a good thing.

    2. Jacomo: my view is that this would be a great time to give up on private transport as a general norm. Everything is connected to everything else:
      cars supported suburbansation; that used land and drove up housing costs; increased housing costs required double-incomes which affected family structures (feminism rightly asked for women to be able to work; capitalism demanded both parents work) and that has been difficult because of commuting distances driven by high housing costs. It’s a mess plus the climate cost.

    3. I would favor a return to a more common sense approach such as smaller personal transport devices maintaining a modicum of freedom beyond public transport while not wasting resources.
      Would love to use something like the Toyota i-road and public transport only when required.
      My friends are bemused by my choice of transport when visiting the U.S but our Smart car is perfectly adequate but I do wish it was electric.

  9. Of course there is too much plastic in the world. I’ve read that somehow our total use of such from 2004 to 2015 equalled the entire previous tonnage produced, which I’m afraid means that there are entirely too many people in the world. It will be impossible to provide a similar standard of living to 8 billion people as the 3 billion who existed in 1960, on a sustainable basis. The general number I get from serious researchers is that we are already at 1.7 times what can be reliably extracted from the earth on an ongoing basis. And we are choking ourselves with waste.

    That is why I’m afraid I’m a fatalist. It’s like the renewable electrical energy business. We are now far along a curve of windmills and solar that prove the load factor of such devices does not square with the electrical grid network we now have. Something has to provide base load coverage and fill in the gaps when the wind is down or it’s nightime. This will become even more obvious as EVS proliferate. But all I read is pretty fluffy stuff to an engineer who worked for an integrated generation/transmission/distribution utility for 20 years. So I write with some degree of tongue in cheek, because I see very little sign that anybody is really serious about changing the way things are, and the current strategy appears to be to prolong the situation with liberal applications of duct tape to hold things together.

    In our blind attempts to keep things going, we are about to embark on wholesale production of batteries using relatively scarce minerals. What a great plan. Then there are the fairy tales people tell themselves at a non-technical level about how batteries can keep an electric utility from suffering outages due to overloads. Witness the Elon Musk charge to help out South Australia with 100 MWh of batteries. That is a mere drop in the bucket to even a small place such as where I live. Average system load for 900,000 people is 1500 MW, rising to 2300 in winter. The batteries would therefore last about six minutes. If we throw out fossil fuels, we cannot provide the electricity to keep the batteries charged in the first place. Nuclear power plants are out because of problems like Fukushima and before that Chernobyl and Harrisburg.

    In Canada we have suffered a 50% decline in wildlife populations since 1970 when fewer than 4 billion of us bestrode the world. Shoreline erosion is a way of life around here. Weather is becoming increasingly more fiendish. Unless one is deaf and blind, and many are just that, it takes no rocket scientist brain to realize that this way of life cannot go on forever. Yet after each natural disaster and the requisite round of Tut, Tuts for a week or two, we resume our profligate ways. Europe gases itself with NOx from diesels yet in the main seems unconcerned – Merkel wants diesel technology to continue, for example.

    You can examine the issue forwards, sideways and backwards. You can put a brave face on it and deny there’s a problem. You can agitate for change in our profligate ways. But in general people just buy more smartphones, watch more Netflix, eat more execrable pre-packaged “food” and hope whatever happens doesn’t happen to them. That about sums it all up.

    There really is no way out for us all. The way I see it there is no overall solution beyond drastically reduced human population, and that is unlikely to occur. Until it does with a cruel certainty pretty much all at once. Hence my fatalism.

    1. Bill I live in the UK and with solar panels and the Ampera my electric bill for the year is the equivilent of eating out three times. If I add eight more panels both transport and domestic needs will be covered completely. What’s so difficult in this being widely applied to virtually eliminate some of the scenario you describe.
      I do agree with most of what you state but believe we are no different than any other organism on the planet and thus are also subject to extinction.

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