Comment: Why a bottom-up approach is vital in EV design
Mike Brown, director of industry collaboration & partnerships at the University of Salford, looks at the need for manufacturers to diverge from simply converting existing vehicle platforms for electric vehicles and explores how purpose-built EVs can meet the needs of fleets and drivers.
Automotive design has been confined and heavily influenced by the accommodation of the powertrain system. Regardless of the brand, this has resulted in cars that tend to be very similar in look and style as there are only so many practical and manufacturable ways you can fit a powertrain into a car’s body. There are of course some exceptions to this when a vehicle design breaks the mould, but typically this tends to occur at the top end of the price range.
For many years, the design of electric vehicles (EVs) involved converting or adapting an internal combustion engine (ICE) design to fit in some large and heavy lead-acid batteries, as well as an electric motor or two. The end results to this approach were not typically very attractive or affordable for the general car owner.
However, we’re now at a very exciting stage in automotive design that could favour the UK’s proven capabilities in innovation and design creativity. New battery technology and smaller, more efficient electric motors are giving automotive designers increased freedom to design completely new vehicle concepts that can successfully make it into production. Unfortunately, many established automotive OEMs are finding it hard to break free from tried and tested vehicle design philosophies, often driven by the need to protect huge investments in vast vehicle manufacturing processes, assembly lines, and supply chains.
Irrespective of brand allegiances, I think most people, some begrudgingly, credit Tesla with changing both the industry and public perception and expectations of what an EV could and should look like and delivering cars with mass-market appeal. It was Tesla’s clean sheet approach and designing from the ground-up that allowed them to put together cars that look good and deliver practical range and excellent performance.
Externally, the current Tesla range of cars (Model S, 3, and X) still conform to traditional car design; an approach I believe was intentional, giving the car buyer time to get comfortable and accept the technology. However, the unveiling of the Tesla Cybertruck has created a ‘Marmite moment’ and could signal a point where vehicle design truly breaks free from the traditional mould and brings car designs typically seen in science fiction, into the real world.
Tesla has also taken a similar approach with trucks: the Tesla Semi, which is expected to enter production in 2020, will do for the haulage industry what the Tesla Models S, 3 and X are doing to the car market. The shift being felt by the car makers will soon hit truck makers.
The established automotive OEMs have finally recognised the future is now and it’s electric. The move to fully electric powertrains is accelerating and with governments around the world setting dates for a ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel, and hybrid cars, the automakers need to sharpen their pencils and get a shift on.
As with all vehicle types; reducing the mass (weight) of a vehicle will improve operational efficiency and performance, while also reducing operational CO2 emissions. The best approach to achieve a weight saving is bottom-up design: design the entire vehicle specifically for an electric powertrain.
This challenge presents a great opportunity for the UK automotive sector as we have world-leading knowledge, skills, and experience in motorsport and aerospace; two sectors that require high levels of vehicle efficiency and performance, driving the development of new materials, manufacturing processes, and technologies. Combined with this, we also have a globally recognised and respected creative design industry. The UK also has some exceptional industry leaders and I’m sure we will rise to the challenge.
However, automakers need to understand it’s no longer just about how a car looks or drives, it’s understanding that cars are evolving into connected environments, and car-owners are expecting a completely new and different user experience. Again, Tesla is perhaps ahead of the curve in this area and has also injected some humour and fun into driving, while creating news levels of customer experience and expectation.
One key technology that will have the biggest impact on EVs is batteries. As soon as EVs can deliver a real-world range in excess of 400 miles, on a single charge, and as battery prices fall (leading to EVs reaching purchase price-parity with petrol & diesel cars), we will see mass adoption of EVs. This move will be accelerated with the wider availability of EV charging at places of work, at home, on the street, and service stations.
I’m excited about the future and have confidence in the UK automotive industry to rise to the challenge and take us into this new era.