E-mobility – a “turbo” for car design?

It looked a bit as if it had tumbled out of a Playmobil box: the Google Car. What the American Internet company has presented to the astonished public as a self-driving electric car must have impressed die-hard petrolheads seem like a caricature of the automobile. Round front and rear, no sign of engine compartment or trunk in the conventional sense, no steering wheel either! And yet in some ways a trendsetter. At least if you look around the new Volkswagen ID concept car series! The “ID Buzz, The modern interpretation of the VW bus is not only somewhat reminiscent of the “Samba Bulli” of yesteryear, but also of the Google Car of yesteryear, the model also has a certain reminiscence of the Google Car from the front

The “ID Buzz This fulfills the concept of autonomous driving in the literal sense of “auto-mobile” means that technology is increasingly disappearing into the background to give more space to people. Although the Wolfsburg-based company does not completely dispense with a “steering wheel, but reduce it to a kind of touch display for steering. If the driver wishes, the steering wheel can be moved out, but this then restricts the space available to the driver. Even the buyers of the original Bulli could not complain about a lack of space or too many extras.

Form follows function

The new car designs and electrification are not likely to change this too much either. New vehicle developments have always inspired designers. Their principles are largely identical across manufacturers: To achieve enough energy for a reasonably acceptable range, the cars’ floor assembly is used to install sufficient lithium-ion battery packs. They supply the motors, whose torque development is completely independent of speed and which, moreover, have much more compact dimensions. So what’s the point of long hoods? They may be useful as a crumple zone for absorbing and dissipating impact-related kinetic energy. But aren’t there now “external airbags” for this purpose? ? And pedestrians and other road users could also be instructed by autonomously driving cars via exterior displays, as a patent from Google shows.

Experts such as Cologne design professor Paolo Tumminelli therefore see the automotive technology shift as an opportunity to “give the automobile back to the people.
The electric car could become more modern again, lighter, more open, according to the professor, whose favorite car, according to the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit,” is a Fiat Panda, and who can also imagine the integration of cars into houses. Mind you, not as a senseless waste of space in the garages built up against the houses, but rather as a “room on wheels. And because form must always follow function, Tumminelli can imagine much more cubic car shapes that liberate the design from the “aerodynamic dictates” free.

The primacy of technology

But as the Symbioz concept, which Renault presented at the IAA two years ago, shows, the development of autonomous cars into living spaces does not necessarily have to lead to cubic forms. Unlike Tumminelli’s favorite car, the French concept study is extraordinarily aerodynamic. Its stretched, flatly rising vehicle front – whether still needed for a motor or not – is a streamlined shape. As futuristic as the Renault looks, it does not break with streamlined lines. Only a look inside the vehicle reveals the design potential of autonomous electric vehicles. The Symbioz makes use of positioning four apparently comfortable recliners in a club arrangement around a table.

Even in the luxury class of cars with internal combustion engines, the interior increasingly became a living room. And connected cars, i.e. cars with a connection to the Internet, a prerequisite for the desired autonomous electric driving, have long been the standard, and not only there. Especially if this trend continues, the aerodynamics of the autonomous electric vehicle must not be pushed into the background. Because every additional assistance system, every air conditioning system and every WLAN router not only takes up space and energy, it also adds mass that has to be accelerated – a dilemma between the demands of comfort and economy. But why should we sacrifice the comforts of home in cars that merge even more with our living space?? Especially when we travel in them for longer periods of time, because Tumminelli envisions modern automobility as a much more decelerated process?

Extravagant exceptions

In an overview of electric cars available today, one finds a rather manageable number of extravagances. Even the epitome of today’s electromobility, the Tesla S, does not break with the usual forms. This is more the case with the Renault Twizy, a city runabout that is thoroughly trimmed for functionality. In particular, the models in the overview, which were already available with an internal combustion engine, also feature decidedly boxy shapes. Whether cubic or aerodynamic seems to be neither a question of electric nor of autonomous driving.

On the outside, design changes seem to be rather discreet anyway: instead of exterior mirrors, there are cameras and modern LED lighting systems that can be used to send messages to other road users, but whose basic shapes do not differ greatly from their predecessors. And VW’s ID3 Neo also retains what is actually an obsolete engine hood, even if it is very close to becoming a flat, rising windshield.

That only very unusual concepts bring large design changes, becomes finally clear with Volvo. Hardly any of the Swedish concept cars stand out as much as the reinterpretation of the “Snow White Car” Volvo P1800 ES. The Volvo 360c is an autonomous four-seater in a club configuration whose interior can be converted into a sleeper car for a single passenger. Whether the car can sleep in before it has to be plugged in again is not a question of design. Despite all the new room for maneuver, the history of this design still shows a certain continuity. And retro waves also exist in car design. While the Mini and Cinquecento are more recent examples of this among classic internal combustion cars, this trend is continuing in modern electric cars: from the “hugging ball” to the “ball and chain” to the exclusive sports racer for collectors. The Microlino, for example, brings the BMW Isetta back to life electrically, while the EVEX 910E gyro brings the Porsche 910 back to life.

The key issues of e-mobility are thus anything but design-related. In addition to the problem of raw materials, the main issues here are the construction of batteries with significantly higher energy density and increased comfort for passengers. Nevertheless, design changes to conventional automobiles tend to take a back seat, because the decisive success factor will initially be the range of the vehicle.

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