To imitate or innovate? The challenge facing electric car designers

The Engineer

Not long ago battery-powered cars were seen as a bit of a joke. No coverage of the technology was complete without a gag about milk floats or a sniggered reference to the Sinclair C5. And the diminutive G-Wiz, the first all-electric car to appear in anything like significant numbers on UK roads, did little to dampen the derision.

Many of these preconceptions have been dismantled over the last few years, perhaps most dramatically by the Tesla Roadster: a high-speed all-electric sports car that has left all but the most entrenched petrolheads purring with admiration.

Now, with Nissan soon to begin UK production of its Leaf and a host of other manufacturers staking their reputations on a new generation of all-electric ’family’ cars, the technology has a momentum that would confound its early critics. But despite the dizzying advance of the industry, anecdotal evidence suggests that while people are taking the technology more seriously, few are so impressed that they would, without hesitation, swap their gas-guzzler for an electric vehicle (EV).

So-called ’range anxiety’ – the fear that EVs will run out of juice before finishing their journeys – remains an issue, while many of The Engineer’s correspondents claim that without a green energy source the low-carbon credentials of EVs are meaningless.

So far, most major attempts to address these concerns have worked on the assumption that consumers are naturally conservative and that electric cars must look, feel and perform as much like existing vehicles as possible in order to win consumers’ trust. Nissan’s conventional-looking Leaf is a good example. It seems a sensible enough strategy but as our latest report Clean Slate: design and production of electric vehicles suggests, attempting to emulate and mimic the performance and style of the incumbent technology may not be the best way forward for the electric car industry. According to an increasingly vocal group of industry insiders, a vehicle that looks like a family car but can’t do what a conventional family car does might be counterproductive, whereas a vehicle that doesn’t look like a car won’t be burdened with the same expectations. What’s more, there’s a good argument that the potential of electric cars can only be fully realised if designers start with a clean slate.

Conventional car design is heavily dictated by the need to provide mechanical linkages between all elements of a vehicle’s powertrain. Remove the design constraints imposed by a combustion engine and a mechanical drivetrain and all sorts of radical new ideas become possible.

EVs represent a tricky balancing act for the car industry. Battery performance and range will remain critically important, but perhaps electric cars will only be fully accepted when they no longer try to emulate conventional vehicles, but boast their own set of unique and compelling characteristics.

Would you swap your gas-guzzler for an all electric alternative? Vote in our online poll to have your say.