Electrification gaining pace

16 January 2020

With the move towards electrification gaining pace, Al Dean is keeping a close eye on changes in vehicle design. So what, for example, does Tesla’s divisively styled Cybertruck signal for the form/function relationship?

Tesla’s Cybertruck in its natural habitat: moving wealthy folks in all-too-clean boots into nature for 7 days

Whether you like it or not, whether you’ll miss the sound of an engine roaring or are instead looking forward to the day when we no longer burn fossil fuels to power our mobility, you can’t deny that we’re on a rapid course for electrification of the automobile market. Compared to 2017, electric vehicle (EV) sales in 2018 were up by 64%, although they still account for just a fraction of total worldwide vehicle sales.

What I’ve found interesting – and it’s a subject I’ve discussed in this column before – is how the electrification of vehicles is changing how products are developed.

I’ve sat through enough automotive OEM presentations over the last year to know that the required amount of pure, old-school mechanical engineering (and subsequently, the number of mechanical engineers) is dramatically smaller when dealing with EVs.

Instead, the focus is on power (those all-important batteries) and on electrical/electronics/software systems.

But it’s also interesting to look at how the platform approach of EVs is changing how vehicles look and how they are designed.

When I say ‘platform’, I mean two things: first, the platform in the sense of a common set of assemblies used across an OEM’s range; but also, the platform in the sense of something flat. In other words, if you strip back most EVs, you’ll find a skateboard-like arrangement of huge battery packs, electric motors and a dramatically reduced set of mechanical components when compared to a vehicle powered by an ICE (internal combustion engine).

Which brings us round to Tesla’s Cybertruck. I’ve loved seeing how this thing’s styling brings out the critic in everyone. Style is, and always will be, personal – there’s no right or wrong.

Yes, there are safety concerns over those sharp edges, particularly acute given that the target market for this product is the US, which has an increasingly woeful track record on pedestrian safety (with accidents up 42% in a decade), but this is about something else.

Some folk think it looks like the glimpse of the future that Elon Musk’s endeavours always promise. Some people think it looks like the unwanted offspring of a passionate night between a Transformer and a 6-burner professional kitchen oven.

At the moment, I find that it’s growing on me, in many respects. I mostly want to see what people do with their Cybertrucks once they’re out of warranty and someone finds themselves with some spare time and an angle grinder to hand.

Rivian’s RS1 – more traditionally styled, but with some smart additions made possible by an electric drive train

At the other end of the spectrum is a company like Rivian. This company doesn’t grab the headlines like Tesla does, but in its factory in Normal, Illinois, its team is quietly building up a business that focuses on practical (read: oversized) vehicles for trust fund managers who like the outdoors. These are vehicles that give you that tingly, ‘future of electric vehicles’ feeling, but in a much more approachable manner.

Personally speaking, I’ve just scrapped the only brand-new car I’ve ever owned. At 15 years old, the car that never dies, a Hyundai, finally gave up the ghost. I managed to wrench the ‘Designo Pininfarina’ badge off the side before the scrapman arrived.

I wonder if that YTS kid got a full-time car design job after all?

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