How electric power could democratize car design

How electric power could democratize car design
26 March 2019

How electric power could democratize car design

Martin Tolliday, Ricardo passenger car & motorcycle market sector director, on how electric power is democratizing car design.

Hispano Suiza, Lagonda, Frazer- Nash, Pininfarina – all glorious and evocative names from the golden age of automotive history, and all suddenly back in the spotlight after decades lying dormant. So too are reimagined classic Minis, Jaguar E-Types and even the very latest Ford Mustang. The connection might appear tenuous, but there is indeed one: the common thread is electricity.

The arrival of electric power into the automotive mainstream has, paradoxically, come to embolden fringe players and total outsiders, too. Not in the sense of rousing them to challenge the major players head on, but because of the qualities inherent in electric power and the way battery vehicles are developed and engineered. No vehicle programme is ever simple, but if that vehicle is an EV it can leapfrog several of the most challenging steps that beset conventionally powered models.

With volts and amps in place of chemically complex hydrocarbon fuels, the EV advocate need never again worry about engine development or emission control systems. E-motors, batteries and control systems are largely commodity items and widely available off the shelf; fine-tuning their power characteristics is the task of a few software engineers rather than teams of engine specialists.

But it is in the realm of packaging that battery power stands to make the most startling difference, promising to democratize the whole process of vehicle creation. Electric motors are compact enough to be placed anywhere, even hidden in the wheels; power electronics can be dispersed, and batteries can be tailor-made to fit almost any spare space available. And aerodynamics receive a major boost, too, with air now flowing through the body as well as around it, and no draginducing cooling to worry about.

What this means to the designer is liberation – at last – from the cruel tyranny imposed by that big black lump of an engine, rigidly stuck in a fixed location and forcing the vehicle’s external style to conform to those unforgiving hardpoints.

Escaping from those constraints has allowed the wildest imaginations of stylists and ambitious engineers to run riot – initially in the form of outrageous supercar concepts and even more outrageous performance claims. But now, the benefits of battery power are finding a focus in an altogether more serious segment, that of super-luxury sedans. And it is here that Aston Martin is reviving its Lagonda nameplate as a pure-electric luxury car maker; Italian design house Pininfarina promises a similar mix, as does Spain’s Hispano Suiza. Most recently, Porsche surprised the establishment by announcing that the next generation of its best-selling model, the Macan SUV, will be electric only.

Battery power is the perfect solution for this elevated sector. The smooth, silent torque of electric drive is unmatched, and for spectacular headline-grabbing performance the powertrain can simply be dialled up to deliver astonishing acceleration. Range and cost are rarely an issue, either, for large batteries can easily be specified within a top-premium budget.

Most of all, however, electric power is lowering the barriers to entry for smaller brands and start-ups: witness the success of Tesla, the high hopes surrounding E-SUV newcomer Rivian, and the profusion of new Asia-based hopefuls. More variety in automotive design is an enticing prospect, as is the advent of new volume-built e-platforms such as Volkswagen’s MEB. Perhaps these electric chassis could pave the way for a renaissance of even more classic names, of personalized design and extravagant belle-époque coachbuilding style.