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Electric Cars WIll Change the Face of Motoring

Electric Cars WIll Change the Face of Motoring


Electric cars will change what we drive, but how many of us realise that they will, quite literally, change the face and sound of motoring too? John Swift explore what the next generation of electric cars will look like.

How will electric cars look in the future?

Electric cars will change what we drive, but how many of us realise that they will, quite literally, change the face and sound of motoring too? Here John Swift looks at how this new generation of cars will have very different styling to the ones we drive today and asks one of the UK’s leading car stylists for his views on how cars might look just a year or two from now.

As electric vehicles (EV) begin to take over, two things will drive the rapid shift towards much smoother looking cars – need and opportunity.

To sell in meaningful numbers and to justify the investment in them, EVs will have to demonstrate, that in both range and performance, they satisfy the needs for 99% of us; to do that they have to be as energy efficient as engineers can make them, maximising the utilisation of the power in their batteries.

Energy is needed to overcome the weight of the car of course, but, once it’s moving, other factors such as the rolling resistance of the tyres and most crucial of all, the aerodynamic drag come into play; it takes energy to push something through the air and the more slippery and aerodynamic the object is, the less power it needs.

Put simply; engineers talk of a car having a `drag coefficient’. Whilst Audi was developing developing its e-tron SUV it discovered that the prototype had a very impressive drag coefficient of 0.28, and that’s important, because a reduction in drag coefficient of just 1% gives an extra 3 miles range in everyday driving.

If a reduction in drag of just 1% can make such a noticeable difference, then the need to make cars as slippery through the air as possible is an obvious engineering goal. It is also an area with plenty of opportunity for easy wins…

Silver Audi e-tron whizzing along a sunny road

Lots of things cause drag and turbulence, huge grilles at the front and the radiators behind them, door mirrors, the rotation of the wheels, a messy underside of the car with exhaust pipes and so on sticking out in the breeze.

The biggest offenders though are the large grilles between the headlights and any smaller ones beneath the bumper unit.  These vents allow air into the engine bay and the various radiators which cool the water and oil circulating through it, but they create a lot of roiled, draggy air turbulence which saps power.

An EV doesn’t have a hot petrol engine which needs cooling, so doesn’t need as many vents and right there is the opportunity for EVs to have a far sleeker and smoother front end. They need some flow through, for the air conditioning and to cool the battery pack and electric motors, but on nothing like the scale of today’s cars.

They’re constrained, to some extent, by the pedestrian safety legislation, so there are certain height limitations, but as you can see from the front end of the VIZZION saloon car concept, being worked on by VW and pictured here, they will be a lot prettier to look at.

Red and silver Volkswagen Vizzion concept car

These are engineering issues, but for stylists it’s both a headache and an opportunity.

The front-end is the car’s `face’ and the radiator grille often a powerful brand image. Can you imagine a Rolls-Royce with anything other than its famous, upright Palladian radiator, as strong and imposing as the front of a stately home? There’s also a perception that a bigger grille implies a powerful engine and a fast car, which is why some performance cars have fake ones!

Take that away and stylists have to work out a way to make cars stand out from the crowd and be instantly recognisable. One way is through lights and we will doubtless see headlamp clusters and designs becoming the signifier for car brands, to make them `EV-ocative’…sorry!

One manufacturer, DS, has already shown some of its thinking with the futuristic concept pictured here, the DS EX E-TENSE.

Futurist view of DS X e-Tense concept car

Thierry Metroz, DS Automobile’s Design Director, said that he can foresee the day, not too far from now, when even lights as we know them will be replaced by the actual bodywork itself being the light source….

He said: “Today, all cars are built in the same way, with a bonnet, a bumper and wings, and headlights positioned at the junction of these elements. In the future, we believe lights will be dematerialised and that the surface of the body itself will instead serve as the light source. DS LIGHT VEIL light curtains provide DS X E-TENSE with a visual signature that can take different forms, with varying colours and degrees of brightness. The illuminated pearl dots situated either side of the front bumper are a familiar DS cue.”

We spoke to Craig Callum, Director at the National Transport Design Centre at Coventry University, a leading centre for car design and asked him about these issues.

What, we asked, are the opportunities for frontal styling changes given the reduction in cooling capacity needed for an EV against a conventional one?

Craig said: “With the packaging changes an EV platform would allow, the styling opportunities left for designers are increased dramatically. The front area of the vehicle would in theory be left with less need for cooling ducts.

“In fact, it's clear to see already, from the design styling undertaken by Tesla, just how that can begin to change the way we design the front of vehicles. Some of this partly could be down to expectations for ICE (internal combustion engines) vehicles, however, most of the grills and intakes we see on ICE cars today are actually aesthetic. We have reached a point in consumer perception where we measure a cars power by their grille sizes, and this leads to a huge number of faux-grilles".

Steel grey Tesla model 3 on a mountain road

“EVs have the opposite expectation, in reality we may need to retain a small level of cooling air, as batteries and motors do in fact generate heat. but certainly not even close to the levels of an ICE vehicle. But I think it's safe to say the design styling of vehicles’ fronts will change dramatically; whether that is an engineering demand or a psychological one from the consumer remains to be determined.”

Even with the constraints of legislation on how they’re used and where they’re placed, the use of lights opens plenty of exciting opportunities for stylists to come up with some fascinating ideas and brand identifiers. Already some are talking of `a frontal light wall’; instead of a radiator grille and headlamp cluster being the signature styling, it will be ever more creative use of lights which will distinguish one make from another.

Honda Urban EV showing message lights at front

How about noise?

We all know that EVs are inherently quieter than a petrol/diesel-powered car and with a smoother body it’s reasonable to assume that wind noise will be reduced too - or will it actually work the other way and become more of a factor?

Craig said: “A secondary benefit of this closed design should lead to more aerodynamic design, and of course, as our need for more efficient airflow and dynamics increases then we’ll see smoother underbodies with no ugly, oily ICE sticking out. This will of course reduce wind noise in a vehicle to some extent.

Close up of a human ear

“But consider that the motor and drivetrain noise will also be reduced, and the driver’s attention will perhaps be drawn more to the noises that remain. Suddenly a driver will be more aware of wind noise, road/tyre noise and other stimulants on the senses that previously went unnoticed under the drone of an ICE”.

While the EV sector is still in its infancy and evolving, the need to have strong brand image and presence dictates that cars will need bold, distinctive styling to achieve this. Stand by for some exciting and fresh designs!