Why Are Electric Cars So Skeuomorphic?

A skeuomorph is a design that looks like an older object. Why not start anew?

filling an electric car
Fill'r up on an electric car.

CC Ivan Radic on Flickr

A question that we have asked before on Treehugger is why do electric cars look just like traditional cars? There is no reason for them to—they do not need grilles on their front end to cool the radiator and provide combustion air. Journalist Clive Thompson asks a similar question, wondering why charging cables look like the hoses and nozzles at gas stations. He thinks those electric-car hoses "look like a super weird design problem. Specifically, they’re a skeuomorph."

"A skeuomorph is a piece of design that’s based on an old-fashioned object. You’ve invented a newfangled technology, but you design it to look and act much like the old tech it’s replacing."

Thompson reminds us of how Apple designs used to be skeuomorphic, with iBooks lined up on wooden shelves and iCal with leather stitching holding the pages together. Sometimes it is useful to do this.

"Now, there’s an argument in favor of skeuomorphs. As this line of thinking goes, skeuomorphs help newbies grow accustomed to a newfangled device. Back when the iPhone first emerged, the very act of storing all your contacts and books and calendaring on a tiny piece of strokeable glass was still quite strange to many people. So making the apps resemble their previous physical shells would, Apple figured, help orient people into their new fleshless lives in the Matrix."

Here is the important point that makes me so cranky when I see this kind of design in the 3D world:

"Except skeuomorphs also wind up hobbling the new invention. Because skeuomorphs are based on the physical limits of an old-fashioned device, they get in the way of a designer taking full advantage of the new realm."
Nikon Coolpix

Nikon Coolpix 990 circa 1998

Exactly. When digital cameras came out, there were all kinds of experimentation because you could do anything, you didn't need to have light going through a lens onto the film that traveled between two rollers, This Nikon Coolpix was easy to hold: in front of you, up high, or looking down like you do on a Hasselblad. And nobody bought it because it wasn't skeuomorphic—it didn't look like a camera. So now the DSLRs look like a black Pentax from 1960 with no ergonomics, shaped the way they are for no good reason.

Ford F-150 Lightning


Or take the Ford F-150 Lightning. The chassis with the wheels and the batteries is all under the floor. Under the hood, there is nothing but air. There is no reason that the cab couldn't be pushed forward and the hood sloped so that the driver could actually see if there was anything in front of them. But the designers wanted it to look like a pickup truck should, big and aggressive. It's absolutely a case of skeuomorphism gone mad.

VW pickup truck


Volkswagen didn't have this problem when they developed their version of a pickup truck in the '50s. They had an air-cooled engine at the back, so the truck bed was higher than it might have been on American pickups at the time, but they filled the space in the middle with protected storage. They pushed the cab right to the front and got a very small truck that could probably carry more than the F-150 can, even with its giant trunk in the front. They didn't care much about how it looked. I first showed this when discussing the Canoo electric truck that looks like a toaster, because they threw away the skeuomorphic playbook.

Meanwhile, Thompson is still upset about the charging.

"Those hoses and nozzles — they’re almost risibly skeuomorphic, right? They look exactly like gasoline hoses and nozzles. They get shoved into the same sort of flap-covered holes in the car. And so you have to ask: Is this the best way to get electricity into a car? To emulate precisely the same ergonomics as pumping in old-school gasoline?"

But the problem isn't just filling up the car. The problem is the entire skeuomorphic concept of the car, the idea that you need a thousand pounds of batteries wrapped in 5,000 pounds of steel and aluminum just to go to the grocery store.

Waymo Firefly
Waymo Firefly.

Google/ Waymo

Google, now Waymo, got this, designing their little Firefly to be small, light, with a soft foam front and flexible windshield. They thought that the electric self-driving car should be rethought from the ground up. Electric cars could be designed from the ground up for safety, visibility, and material efficiency. But as Clive Thompson notes, we have been skeuomorphic about cars since they started as horseless carriages.

It is such a huge missed opportunity.