“Change like we’ve not seen in decades”—high-end auto designers go electric

“Change like we’ve not seen in decades”—high-end auto designers go electric

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by Jim Resnick, arctechnica.com

 

Whoever you ask, EVs mean far greater freedom for designers, engineers, and marketers.

Change comes hard. And sometimes, it's slow. Until recently, no industry played closer to that model more than that of the automobile. Ever since the first series-produced cars of the 1900s placed the big internal combustion lump of iron at the front, the drive wheels at the back, and the passengers in the middle, the form factor of the automobile has stayed largely the same for 100 years. Variations have cropped up here and there—like rear-engine cars, front-drive cars with engines placed transversely, and the odd mid-engine car—but the reality for designers and engineers of the future's electric cars is more wide open now than in the prior 100 years.

Of course, there have been electric cars before. By 1912, for instance, 20 companies were in the electric car business, with more than 30,000 of them registered for street use in the US. So as we prepare ourselves for this latest incoming wave of viable, affordable, and practical modern electric cars, we wanted some big picture perspective. What does the drive for electric mean for design, engineering, and consumer perceptions?

Wayne Burgess is a long-time designer who's currently Jaguar's number-two man in charge of design. Likewise, Andreas Preuninger, head of GT car development at Porsche, has been around four-wheeled vehicles for quite a while. If anyone may have a clue what a renewed and seemingly genuine push for EVs will do to the vehicles we love, it's this type of industry lifer. After touching base with the duo recently, it's clear the coming changes in the name of better electric vehicles will impact cars for both driver and designer in ways that are and aren't immediately obvious to even the most dedicated petrolhead (err, batteryhead?).

New partners and problems for Jaguar's designers

 "Firstly," says Jaguar's Burgess, "[designing for electric] will be a liberating [force], and Ian Callum, our head of design, always tries to empower the notion of freedom in design. With the engine and transmission gone, we can be truly cab-forward, sliding the passenger compartment ahead or elongating it. For EVs, I think you'll see more monovolume [two-box] vehicles in the market, akin to how MPVs or minivans used to be, which will also drastically open up the interior."

For would-be riders and drivers, Burgess thinks an EV's lack of (or severe minimization of) a transmission tunnel will notably create more storage and foot space. "This [change] is very tangible: the I-Pace, our first all-electric, will occupy the exterior footprint of a Porsche Macan, yet the interior will be about as long as a current long-wheelbase Jaguar XJ sedan, our largest vehicle," he says. "I think the aesthetic will become quite different from anything we've done before at Jaguar, as shown by the upcoming I-Pace. But I think that change will be the same for almost everybody in the business."

For the designer directly, Burgess sees EVs changing his workflow drastically. "I've never worked in such an integrated way with the aerodynamics team, though," he notes. "Being genuinely cab-forward in architecture on the I-Pace, we got into the smaller details of hyper-aero efficiency, because with electrics it's all about max range capability. So more than ever before, the design team made more suggestions to the aero team, and we really had no clue whether they'd work. A great example is the radiator grille."

The I-Pace won't have a conventional water cooling system for an engine, but Jaguar wanted it to retain a grille—"that feature has come to be part of our signature graphic requirement for our brand," Burgess admits. But functionally, the designer noted an electric car's battery pack requires cooling as well, emphasizing the importance of grille design in this instance.

"There are conventions that we must consider before we go way out on a design limb," says Burgess. "As a designer, I want to stretch the boundaries, for sure, but I also don't want to alienate people... [With the grille], this gave rise to a suggestion by our design team to our aero crew on a solution to keep an identifiable grille for recognition and branding purposes, but with a new solution on the aero front: how could we keep the familiarity of the Jaguar grille while also enjoying an aero benefit? The solution is a slot or air extractor through the hood (bonnet) that passes air up and accelerates it over the windscreen. This is proving to work well, letting us keep the grille and yield excellent aero numbers."

For another example of practical changes EVs necessitate, Burgess points to Jaguar's interest in sheer sides, or keeping the vehicle's sides more square and uniform rather than using bulging flares and topography, which disturbs air over the fenders and doors. "Because these sides are so sheer [flat]," notes Burgess, "we give it curves in side elevation to impart a different aesthetic."

Like that signature grille, another long-standing Jaguar convention going back to the D-Type and C-Type sports/racing cars of the 1950s and their contemporary sedans is the tapering tail (as seen from above). EVs loom with this design convention, too. "We cannot really do that in the future with a car as critical on aero efficiency as an electric," states Burgess. "The air starts separating from the car at about the center of the rear wheel and begins to create turbulence, and therefore drag. So we create sharp crease lines at the rear into the taillight lenses, which is the lowest drag solution you can apply, creating an aesthetic form directly from aero needs and similar to the C-X75 show car of a few years ago."

In the end, Burgess takes a long view. He recognizes changes will be inevitable, but drastic ones will likely happen over time. Since he has witnessed so many practical (and some impractical) works in his time in the industry, we wanted to know what Burgess would like to see as a far-flung, no-holds-barred project of EV's future. "I would love to do a genuine Jag electric supercar," he says. "The sound of a Formula E electric racing car is sizzling and appealing in its own way; I could envision an electric supercar meant for the road with an aircraft-inspired fuselage, or an open-wheel concept using that type of drivetrain. I'd drive it."

A paradigm shift for Porsche

Porsche's Mission E will be the German company's first salvo into the pure electric realm, like Jag's I-Pace. Though it won't likely enter showrooms until late 2019 as a 2020 model year car, it is nonetheless a tangible paradigm shift for Porsche. That's something Preuninger seems well aware of.

"Porsche's center has always been series production sports cars," he says. "But nowhere is it written that we cannot have both a futuristic car like the Mission E, while having a car like the upcoming 911 GT3 RS, which is the purest, most analog car we build." This duality—or irony, depending on how you look at it—is more noticeable within the Porsche stable than perhaps within any other automaker today. Porsche currently sees enormous interest in track-oriented athletic sports cars, but the company simultaneously garners huge interest in a pure electric concept like the Mission E.

"It's no contradiction at all to have a well-understood, pure analog sports car on one side of the house with a well-established form and look, while having something quite opposite in the very different, perhaps 'digital' part of the envelope," says Preuninger. "It makes perfect sense and they go together quite well; they serve very different purposes. To be very tangible about it, one is a weekend car for fun driving on a track or through beautiful curvy roads, while the other is to enjoy on the way to work on a daily basis during the week. Hobby instrument versus daily instrument."

This perspective also reveals a duality of the marketplace, at least in this more upscale and well-funded end. There is a very strong appetite for both the leading edge of the alternative spectrum like the Mission E and Jag's I-Pace, and there is also a continuing (maybe even growing) appetite for the well-established, analog enthusiast, red-blooded side of the spectrum.

"When word first broke about it, we received a flood of e-mails asking for more information about the Mission E," recalls Preuninger. "But remarkably, this flood was from our existing customers, not even people potentially new to the brand."

Talking to the longtime designer, it's clear that Porsche no longer thinks of itself as specifically a sports car manufacturer. The Cayenne, Macan, and Panamera obviously reflect this, as well they should: Porsche's overall US sales now split at 25.3 percent sports cars (911 and Boxster/Cayman) and nearly 75 percent SUVs and sedans. But the expanding Porsche mindset is clearly rooted in the Mission E. And today, with each side of the Porsche product house having different purposes, a total of three different types of drivetrain will propel them all: gasoline, hybrid, and pure electric.

In drivetrain types and in body types, diversity is the future—EVs are simply moving us more quickly down the road. So whether you're a diesel diehard or a designer slowly helping to determine our future (whether at Jaguar or Porsche), what comes next promises to be new and exciting for everyone along for this ride.

"We're privileged to be around at this moment in the industry," as Jaguar's Burgess puts it. "It's a moment of change like we've not seen in decades, and to be doing this work now is highly rewarding."