We have entered a new golden age of car design. Not since the 1960s have attainable family cars, such as the Ford Fusion or Mazda6, looked as good as they do today. And there is a new, exciting force exerting itself on car design, one that promises to upend long-established rules: electric vehicles.
My first experience designing an electrified car came with the first-generation Chevrolet Volt. In 2007, when Chevy unveiled the Volt’s innovative powertrain, it was unfortunately wrapped in the Volt show car, which acknowledged none of the realities of electric-vehicle design. With a long hood and cab-rearward proportions, it looked more like a Camaro variant than a dedicated hybrid vehicle.
After returning from a three-year foreign assignment in Korea, where I worked on the Cruze, Sonic, and Spark, I stood in front of the Volt show car with Bryan Nesbitt, who had just given up the reins at GM Europe Design. We agreed the production car wasn’t going to look anything like this when it was done. Sure enough, we were tasked to take the Volt concept and deliver it to the market using GM’s compact-car structure. Over the next year and a half, we worked with GM’s electrification engineers to deliver a production Volt with 40 miles of electric-only range. After going through the five stages of grief for the old rules of car design, Nesbitt and I came to accept a few new rules for designing an electric vehicle.
Now, five years on, GM has launched its first all-new electric vehicle since the EV-1: the Chevrolet Bolt. How well does it follow the new rules of EV design? I spoke with Bolt chief designer and managing director of design for GM Korea, Stuart Norris, to find out. “I actually think that defining and conceptualizing the car in the most upfront stage was the most difficult part of the project,” Norris says. “We were given a very clear brief for the big picture: 200-plus miles of range for around $30,000 by the fourth quarter of 2016. But once that was done, what the car should be was a challenge. What did we want?”
Rule 1: Start with a clean sheet of paper
With an all-electric powertrain come fantastic packaging and proportion advantages. Batteries can be sandwiched into the floor, opening up additional space for occupants, and electric motors have smaller profiles than internal combustion engines, allowing for lower hoods and shorter front overhangs. “I would say that designing an EV is full of opportunity, and it’s about how we maximize that potential,” Norris says. “Obviously, having the battery under the floor and keeping it protected from the elements and damage makes the car taller. But with that package comes the opportunity to give the car a unique proportion.” Base your EV off an existing, internal combustion-based architecture, though, and you get none of these benefits.
Rule 2: Aero is king
Until battery technology can match the energy density of gasoline, electric range anxiety will be an issue. Americans have set up their lives based on the range and refueling expectations of the internal combustion engine; we aren’t going to move closer to work, skip taking the kids to soccer, or walk to the grocery store just because we bought an EV.
To reach a commercially acceptable range, most EV programs are given moonshot-level aero targets. Engineers and product planners love aggressive aero targets because good aerodynamic performance is free, and they love free. “Basically, a short, tall car is a tough starting point for aero, but with some technical enablers — front shutters, underbody coverage, etc. — we spent hours in the wind tunnel tuning the design to get to a fantastic 0.308 drag coefficient,” Norris claims.
Of course, this means the wind tunnel may have as much creative input into an EV’s design as the design chief. If you aren’t careful, your EV will look like everyone else’s because the wind tunnel has very specific tastes.
Rule 3: Make it look different
A simple EV badge won’t cut it. Ask a Prius owner how he or she feels about their car’s design, and you’ll hear something like, “I like that it’s different. It makes a statement.” It’s not exactly a beautiful statement, but one that says its driver is environmentally conscious. “When we designed the Bolt EV, we envisaged a utopian image of the next-generation family vehicle delivering CUV-like attributes in an efficient, customer-focused package,” Norris says. “We wanted a car that would fit into people’s everyday lives without the typical constraints of an EV.”
What tools do designers have to communicate this difference? We love oversized wheels, vents, bulges, and exhaust pipes, but EVs need none of this. What about a big, powerful grille? The front end of a car is called a fascia for a reason—it is the face of the car, and it sets the character. Having no grille on late-model Oldsmobiles and first-generation Infinitis didn’t play too well, and it will be interesting to see if Tesla finds success ditching the grille on the forthcoming Model 3. Although a traditional radiator-cooling grille makes no sense on an EV, a big, blank space isn’t the answer either. Because EVs have almost no external requirements, other than a plug-in port, we are faced with adopting the highly efficient Bauhaus aesthetic of smartphones or finding new ways of creating powerful visual identities.
We are just beginning the EV design era. New brands such as Faraday Future, Lucid Motors, and NextEV have a clean slate to start with, and now the old guard is jumping in with fashionable new EVs such as the Bolt. I tend to root for the underdog, but I’m not sure who that is anymore.
About the author: David Lyon is a car designer with a passion for user experience and a cofounder of Pocketsquare Design in Royal Oak, Michigan. He previously was responsible for General Motors’ Asia Pacific design and interior design.