There's more and more electric cars being shown at auto shows and released every year. They're here to stay, and I'm all for it— the more ways we can power cars, the better. Bring on the steam, atomic, and orgone energy cars. But these new electrics are bringing with them some interesting design challenges that right now are without clear answers, and the cars are still saddled with a century of design traditon.
The biggest vestigial tradition that designers are desperately clinging to is one that has become incredibly important for automobile design identity and is totally unneeded on an electric car: the grille.
Specifically, the main challenge revolves around the fact that for about a century, auto design has been working with one set of criteria very specific to internal combustion engines. Electric cars have different physical requirements, but auto designers are having trouble transitioning to these new needs— or are at least reluctant to give up so much established tradition.
The truth is that electric cars don't really need grilles. There's no radiator, and while electric motors and other components do require cooling, they're often placed in areas nowhere near the traditional grille location. There are still parts of a car that will need airflow— air conditioning condensers, possibly oil coolers for certain kinds of motors, but nothing that really demands the type and size of grille that internal combustion cars require.
I'm not just talking ex recto here, you can see this happening on almost every new electric car out there. Well, you can see it if you ignore all the fake, vestigial grilles that most of them have.
I don't mean to demean any designers for keeping the grille shapes in place— on cars that are electrics because they've been converted from gas cars, like the new Spark EV, it's the cheapest path— the grille area is filled in with a material to make it solid. GM is using the same patterned aluminum that they use for the Volt's non-grille. It's a pattern that manages to both suggest a traditional grille and electrical traces at the same time. I actually like it as a pattern, but it's still out of place, an ornament that suggests something that's no longer there. Vestigial design traits like these are actually pretty common— think about electric lamps designed to look like lanterns or candles, or the fake wood in a gas fireplace, or how the winding knob on a battery-powered watch sets it, but doesn't need to wind it. Sometimes the old traits just make people more comfortable, even if they don't make sense.
Plus, it's not just comfort— brand identity and grilles are extremely closely tied. Having to design an electric car that fits visually with a family of cars while eliminating what is arguably the most prominent part of the cars' face is a big issue. Look at BMW— I imagine if I saw a pair of human kidneys laying on the sidewalk in front of me I'd think of BMW right before I shit myself. Those kidney grilles define the brand more than anything, so it makes sense when they're not needed, they're still sort of there.
BMW has taken an interesting approach with their electric car concepts, the i3 and i8: the kidney shapes are there, integrated into the front face like the actual grilles would be, but are filled with glossy plastic that makes no attempt at pretending to be a grille. I like the approach— it references the design, but doesn't try to masquerade as anything.
Interestingly, BMW didn't always rely on those kidneys— back in the beautiful days of common rear-engine, air-cooled cars, grille-less fronts were more tolerated— look at this BMW 700, handsome in a VW Type III sort of way. Even today, cars that emulate their rear-engined ancestors, like the retro-styled VW Beetle or Fiat 500, go to extreme design lengths to hide the actual radiator intake into the lower bumper area.
Infiniti has let the freedom of a non-functional grille go to their heads the most. They're unwilling— at least so far— to design an electric car without a grille, like their downmarket brother Nissan has with the Leaf. Instead, they took a large bite of methwich and vajazzled their Leaf-based LE Concept car with a gaudy, massive, cubic-zirconia mouth. It's pure jewelry— nonfunctional, not really integrated into the overall design, and entirely there to either convey status or bedazzle the local magpie population, whose approval they so very much desire.
Whatever you think of the Leaf's overall looks, I do respect that they designed something true to the machinery underneath, and I'm looking forward to other grille-less designs of electric cars.
Honda's taken a very show-car approach with their appealing little 2011 concept, the EV-STER. It's a fun, small little roadster, and the design vocabulary seems to indicate that Honda got the young lightcycle designer after Tron freed him from the control of the MCP.