Yesterday, the cars-powered-by-electrons enthusiast site Electrek published an interview with noted auto designer Henrik Fisker, titled Henrik Fisker believes that design will play an outsized role in electric vehicle market. I think this is true, but there’s an important reason why this is that’s not really addressed head-on. So let’s do that.
The crucial quotes about Fisker’s opinions on the growing role of design are here:
“Design is going to be increasingly important,” he tells Electrek. “When you move to electric vehicles, you’re not interacting anymore with a complex mechanical gasoline engine where the engine noise and response varies extremely from different car companies. So I think values from buyers in the future are going to shift.
“We’re all going to expect fast acceleration, instant torque that we have in acceleration – but we’re going to start looking at other ways to entice the buyer. Exterior and interior design. The user interface. The ride and handling.”
So, a few things. Design is already a colossal factor in why people buy cars. Arguably, whether buyers actually admit it or not, or are even aware of it or not, it’s the biggest factor. But the reason Fisker thinks it will become even bigger is revealed in this sentence:
When you move to electric vehicles, you’re not interacting anymore with a complex mechanical gasoline engine where the engine noise and response varies extremely from different car companies.
What he’s saying here, essentially, is that all electric motors feel basically the same. With internal-combustion engine cars, there’s a lot of different ways to arrange those pistons—or, rarely, a funny hamentashen-shaped rotor—to capture the force of those tiny explosions to move a crank to move some wheels.
All those different ways have different idiosyncratic sounds, vibrations, performance, efficiency, and on and on. This is not news; we all know every engine is different, and that’s part of what makes cars interesting.
Electric motors, though, all basically work the same way, using electromagnetism to spin a shaft. Sure, they can vary in power, torque, and all that, but fundamentally the ‘feel’ of an electric motor from an elevator and one from a Tesla aren’t all that different.
This is what Fisker is talking about; should EVs become mainstream, cars will lose one of their differentiating criteria. That’s why he says design will become more important, user interface, ride and handling. If we extrapolate out from his basic point, when autonomous cars become common, then we’ll lose handling as a differentiator as well.
Since we’re extrapolating, let’s look again at the idea that, character-wise, all electric motors are basically the same. While I absolutely will miss the quirky differences between types of engines, I don’t want to despair just yet, and gloomily accept that character will be lost from cars forever.
Sure, the some of the character as we understand it today will be gone, but there is an opportunity here to find some compensation.
If we accept that, fundamentally, an electric drivetrain is an electric drivetrain, at least in how the systems ‘feel’ and basic performance characteristics (maximum torque from 0 RPM, transmissions as we know them unnecessary, etc.) then we should accept that and find the advantage to this that we’ve traded engine character for: standardization.
Standardization sure as shit doesn’t sound like a way to keep cars interesting, but hear me out. If drivetrains and battery systems become commodities, standardized elements that can be easily plugged into chassis from any manufacturer, then this lowers the barrier to entry for niche carmakers who want to target smaller markets.
If we’re going to have motors that all feel basically the same, we should at least not have to get stuck with them in boring-ass cars. Fisker is right; design will be even more important, but I’d go even further: variety of design will become more important.
If EV platforms and drivetrains and batteries were standardized and could be bought from many suppliers, smaller companies could be viable that made, say retro-inspired sports cars for a small market, or a company that made near-perfect Tatra T87 knockoffs, or cool little campers, or utility trucks, or falconer’s cars, or whatever.
If you don’t think this will happen, think about the cars that companies like EV West or Zelectric are building, laboriously, adapting electric drivetrains to vintage cars with work and skill. If this was an easier process, I’m sure there’d be more companies giving it a try.
These cars would all have to meet safety standards, of course, but even the frames and systems necessary for that could become supplier-driven commodity items as well.
Advances in 3D printing and related technologies means that the era of niche coachbuilders could become a viable thing again. I’ve talked about this before, but Fisker’s admission of the uniformity of electric drivetrains and the greater emphasis on style just renewed my resolve to see this idea happen.
An eventual move to all-electric cars has some real, quantifiable benefits, and some less quantifiable costs, especially to those of us that love cars. Standardizing battery types, motors, electrical connection and mounting systems could allow for a larger and more open car-making ecosystem.
Of course, getting carmakers to accept any standard is something of a nightmare, but all we need is one that’s legal and competitive, even if the large-scale manufacturers ignore it.