Why Shouldn't an Electric Car Look Like a Toaster?

©. Canoo

Canoo redesigns the electric car from the ground up. It redesigns the ownership model too.

Adele Peters of Fast Company writes about the design of the Canoo, a new electric vehicle that doesn't look like a canoe, or for that matter, an electric car. Its designer tells her that, “with electric power trains, there’s actually no need that a car looks like a traditional combustion engine car.” She continues:

The basic shape of a car hasn’t really changed over a century, with space for an engine, space for passengers, and space for luggage, all arranged in basically the same configuration. But because powerful electric motors and batteries are smaller than a standard powertrain, the whole shape of the vehicle could transform, if car designers were feeling creative.
It's an interesting vehicle that the designers call a "loft on wheels". From the press release:
Canoo interior

© Canoo

With the interior space of a large SUV and the exterior footprint of a compact car, the canoo holds enough space for seven people. All seating is designed to feel more like furniture than traditional car seats. For example: The rear seats are more like a sofa to lounge on than a cramped and segmented backseat, and the front takes inspiration from mid-century modern chairs. "Cars always have been designed to convey a certain image and emotion; however, we chose to completely rethink car design and focus on what future users will actually need. Thus, we came up with this loft-inspired vehicle,” says Richard Kim, in Charge of Design at Canoo.
Canoo Skateboard

© Canoo

The Canoo puts all the guts of the car, the batteries and the motors, in a "Skateboard", a term used by Amory Lovins a dozen years ago, where all the workings of the car are squished into the bottom and the body is stuck on top. But Canoo takes it even further with its "steer by wire", with no hardware connection between the steering wheel and the wheels. I love the visibility, the low window in the front that will let you see the kid walking in front, in case the seven cameras, five radars, and 12 ultrasonic sensors don't.

Canoo steering

© Canoo

Steer-by-wire offers weight savings and paves the way for autonomous driving. We have complete freedom to locate the steering wheel to suit any cabin design and driver position. It also leads to a more responsive and smoother driving experience. Since steer-by-wire eliminates the need for a mechanical connection, there is more freedom to arrange the interior space of the vehicle to provide customers with exciting new vehicle options.
Volkswagen ad

Volkswagen ad/Promo image

And so, we get what I have called the toaster-car, like Hyundai was showing at CES this year. It's not a new idea, and it just makes sense if you don't have to park an engine out front.

Got lots to carry? get a box!

Volkswagen ad/Promo image

That's why Volkswagen was able to deliver its van on what basically was their "skateboard" design with an air cooled engine at the rear. Because if you've got a lot to carry, you should get a box.

Toyota Previa

Toyota Previa bombed, people thought it looked weird/ Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

Unfortunately, people often have trouble when basic preconceptions are messed with. The first Toyota Previas had the engine under the floor under the front seats, but people thought it looked like a weird jellybean when what they wanted to see was the Chrysler minivan, and it bombed in North America. And now the Canoo is described by Peters as a "a spacious jelly bean-shaped pod."

There are other wheels being reinvented here. Instead of selling the car, Canoo is selling a subscription.

Canoo’s membership will be flexible, with a single all-inclusive monthly payment that offers the vehicle, maintenance, registration, access to insurance and charging on a month-to-month basis... A membership model that puts an end to ownership, providing a hassle- and commitment free car experience in modern cities.
Canoo people

© Canoo

Now if only they threw in parking, everyone would be lining up. But seriously, it is an interesting model, sort of what we have called a Product Service System; you don't want to own a complicated piece of machinery, you want to get from A to B. They also believe the way we use cars will change, and anticipate a "world in which transportation is becoming increasingly electric, shared and autonomous." These are courageous words that we have not heard for quite a few years.

But this is an interesting, flexible design and financial model. And why should an electric car look like a ICE car, any more than a digital camera should look like a 1960s vintage Nikon or Canon or Leica?