Decoding Design

Where should electric car designs plug in?

Posting in Design

So far, there is nothing close to a "normal" electric vehicle. So what will a middle-of-the-road EV look like?

Sports cars look sporty. Family cars look safe. So should electric cars look like bolts of lightening?

In The New York Times, Phil Patton writes the design story behind the electric vehicles starting to merge onto American highways.

Thus far, designs fall largely into one of two camps: incumbents and standouts. The incumbents are designed to look as much as possible like their internal combustion engine (ICE) counterparts -- the new Ford Focus EV is a great example of this, as it looks just like the gas-powered Focus. But BMW is building out a whole new look for its line of EVs -- not only is the powertrain new, so is the construction (carbon fiber replaces metal components).

BMW isn't thinking about aesthetics only, the lighter body also helps improve the battery's range. Audi is also taking on bold, unique designs for its EVs. And the point is that they're looking for tech-forward, early-adopter drivers. They want these EVs to stand out.

For new automakers Tesla and Fisker, there is no old design from which to diverge. These cars are standouts from the get-go, with sleek, low bodies that convey the speed and luxury their monied buyers are after. If anything, Tesla and Fisker are mimicking the look of ICE sports cars.

To a large degree, the way an EV looks is a reflection of its maker's manufacturing capabilities and the type of consumer it's going after. Ford, for example, wants to retain as much of its existing manufacturing platform as possible, since it has already invested billions into that system, so it has been trying to make the EV peg fit into its existing ICE hole. It wants the electric (or its new Energi plug-in hybrid) drivetrain to arrive as merely a new option for existing Ford drivers.

But if EVs are ever going to become more than a novelty, they'll need to attract millions of drivers who just need a good, affordable ride.  They don't want flashy, standout designs.  That's why startups like Coda, which makes a sedan that is completely unremarkable except that it's powered by an electric motor, have a good shot at attracting a critical mass of drivers. The best EV design might be the most pedestrian.

Image: Ford Focus/Ford

Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure