Why Do Electric Cars Look Just Like.... Cars?

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CC BY 2.0. Electric Audi/ Lloyd Alter

Why doesn't form follow function?

After arriving at Canadian International Auto Show, the first thing I looked for was the electric car section, which last year was all in its own area. This year, everybody is showing some kind of electric car, and they are hard to find, because they pretty much look like every other car.

Electric Jaguar

Electric Jaguar/CC BY 2.0About the only way you can tell it's electric is there is a wire connected to it. There is the same long hood you might find covering a big V8 gas engine.


BMW I3 / Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It wasn't always thus; the BMW I3 has been around for a while and it is definitely identifiable as a different kind of car. There is no engine in front so there is no need for a long hood, just enough metal up there to meet crash standards and enough hood to meet Euro NCAP pedestrian safety standards.

Chevy Bolt

Chevy Bolt/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It is the same with the Bolt. Keep it small to minimize weight, with as big an interior as you can squeeze in.

volkswagen beetle

© 1961 Volkswagen ad

The Bolt and the I3 both remind me a bit of the old beetle, basically designed from the ground up around the minimum space needed to do the job. The form follows the function. Perhaps when electric cars were really new, their early adopter owners wanted them to stand out and be really visible.

Volkswagen Golf

Volkswagen Golf/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The Volkswagen Golf looks pretty much like... a Volkswagen Golf.

Golf cutaway

© Volkswagen Golf 1974

In North America it used to be known as a Rabbit and it revolutionized car design back in 1974 when Giorgetto Giugiaro built a tiny car with a big tailgate, transverse engine in front and front wheel drive. It was the antithesis of the Beetle, but it still was very much form following function. The electric Golf is none of the above.

Volkswagen ID Crozz

Volkswagen ID Crozz/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Volkswagen did show the ID Crozz, which is pretty jazzy. It has front and rear motors, a range of 350 km (217 miles) 225 kW (301 horsepower) of power, and and 82kWh (279795.61461 BTUs) of battery capacity.


BMW I8 Roadster/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

BMW is building electric rockets that are low and long – and really, you wouldn't know it was electric without the cord.

BMW Interior

BMW Interior/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Inside, you would be hard-pressed to know it was different from a regular car, and look at the radio! Two knobs and a bunch of buttons, right out of my dad's 1991 Buick.

©. Tesla

© Tesla

Compare that to the Tesla Model 3 interior that was designed from the ground up. What are they thinking?

Kona Electric

Kona Electric/CC BY 2.0

This Hyundai Kona Electric is, I suppose, the real future of the electric car: boring, overpriced, looking exactly like every other jellybean crossover. Without the need to enclose an engine they all could have been a very different kind of car.

google car

© Google

When Waymo designed its autonomous Firefly, they started from the ground up, with a soft padded front and a windsheld made of flexible plastic. One critic noted that “the cars evoked a friendlier world, where cars were not things to be feared, nor the harbingers of thousands of deaths across the world.” With the switch from gasoline to electric cars, we have an opportunity to start over, to design cars that are safer for pedestrians and cyclists, that enclose more interior with less exterior, that use less material and less energy and are better for everyone on and off the road.

Instead we appear to just be getting more of the same old, same old.