Take any gasoline car sold today to a mechanic who worked on a Ford Model T 100 years ago, and chances are he has a pretty good idea of how it works. The internal combustion engine at the front spins the wheels, and behind the steering wheel carries the driver, some passengers and luggage.
The advent of electric vehicles changed everything. The shape of a car is no longer so strictly determined by a bulky engine, exhaust pipe or driveshaft. Meanwhile, digital technology promises to replace everything from rearview mirrors to human drivers. The automotive industry has never had to deal with so many changes simultaneously.
All of these changes will come to a head in the next few years, says Adrian van Hooydonk, the design boss for BMW Group. Carmakers’ main concerns will be electric power and integrating fast-evolving digital technology – all while improving environmental sustainability. “It will be a reinvention,” he says.
Even without an internal combustion engine it’s noticeable. Looking at the Tesla’s front, one thing becomes clear: a grille isn’t needed to supply air to the engine.
Rival manufacturers (catching up with Tesla, the world’s most valuable automaker) are using new-found design freedom to offer models like the Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Honda e in a choice of retro-futuristic packages. This includes smaller but more powerful lights, which may have been featured in sci-fi movies in the 1980s.
But the changes will go far beyond surface styling. Electric cars use a “skateboard” design with batteries, wheels and motors at each end. The electric motor is also smaller than the bulky internal combustion engine, so there is no longer a large hood in front of the driver.
American startup Canoo is one of the most famous examples of this. Its “lifestyle car” may be delayed until early next year due to supply chain issues, and unlike most modern cars, it will have a particularly flat front end, giving it a boxy shape.
To some extent, however, aerodynamic considerations still dominate. British van start-up Arrival originally envisioned a vertical windshield, but ultimately opted for a more traditional design because drag reduces the vehicle’s range.
Skateboards mean EVs tend to stand a few inches taller, and many automakers started out with bulky sport utility vehicles so they could hold more batteries. But there is more space for passengers.
Mark Adams, design director at Vauxhall-Opel, said that in a car with an internal combustion engine, “the mechanics take up a lot of space in the whole area.” Then, the use of that space in an electric car “really depends on the individual vehicle and what you as a brand wants to do”.
Citroen, one of Vauxhall’s stable of partners under the Stellantis group, has already shown an option: the Ami is a small, no-frills two-seater that can get around town. It will launch in the UK later this summer for just under £8,000.
In France, Ami can be driven without a license from the age of 14.
Adams believes that the electric revolution could end the trend of large SUVs forever. “The era of ever-growing cars is over,” he said. “We don’t need big cars anymore.”
Producing zero exhaust emissions isn’t the only major change to the car’s look and feel. Reducing end-of-life waste is increasingly seen as critical for automakers, which means using as few parts as possible and a less complex mix of materials.
For example, a car’s front grille may contain 10 to 15 parts, so not having them reduces the complexity of repairs or recycling. BMW’s i Vision Circular shows how a car can be built from just seven materials – all of which are recyclable. Achieving this at scale, however, will be another story.
The most obvious missing piece of the car of the future will ultimately be the steering wheel. Driverless cars have driven millions of miles on the road, and at some point, it seems inevitable that mostly or fully autonomous vehicles (known as Levels 4 and 5 in industry parlance) will hit the market.
“If you then switch it to full autonomous you don’t necessarily need to stay in that same position,” says Vauxhall’s Adams. “We’re all looking at that space.”
“One big thing changes 100 little things,” he added. Less driving means less need for easily accessible controls, so cars are replacing airplane cockpits full of knobs and switches with a cleaner look and a more casual focus.
Overall, digitalization has even more impact on car design than electrification, van Hooydonk said.
Canoo calls its U.S.-focused model a “loft on wheels,” while South Korean automaker Hyundai’s Seven concept features a swivel recliner and bench that it calls a “living room on wheels.” Obviously, some cars are more of an extension of the family, moving at will when the driver is free to do other things.
All the free time on the road can give people more time for other activities. Movie-style projectors or virtual reality entertainment are two options in the works. From Apple and Alphabet to Spotify and WeChat, auto consultancies and big tech companies believe cars will be the next place they sell a wide range of services including movies, games and music.
Eventually, interiors may move from “living rooms” to “bedrooms,” although replacing seats with beds in cars presents thorny safety concerns. Still, the thought of sleeping at home, waking up at work, or even waking up in another country is no longer a Jetsonian pipe dream.
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