Back to the future: electric vehicle designs become normalised
The impossible futuristic designs of the first electric vehicles have now given way to new models that better suit consumer tastes. People want a car, not a spacecraft.
In 2008, Time magazine voted the Aptera as one of the 49 best inventions of the year. The Aptera (wingless in Greek) looked just like that: a wingless aircraft. It only appeared to have wings when the doors were open. The front wheels came out of the sides of a super aerodynamic body, supported by a single rear tyre hidden below a wing that protruded like a dragonfly’s tail.
Despite being an electric vehicle that could travel up to 160 kilometres with a single charge and reach speeds of 100 kilometres per hour in 10 seconds, the company folded, without even getting beyond the prototype. These were the years of the first smartphones, Facebook, Google and Twitter, and bandwidth was opening up new mobile connectivity opportunities unthought of until then.
The first decade of the 21st century saw the start of a technological leap that would change economies and societies forever. The electric vehicle was going to become the paradigm of a world that needed to be cleaner and fairer.
Since its return during the 1960s, battery-powered vehicles were seen as a symbol of progress and of the future. Although they had not the slightest idea of what was around the corner in the next century. Designers let their creativity run wild, building prototypes supposedly designed to transport people in a hyper-technological world, with robots and devices that were enabled with platinum bolts and tyres.
In the middle of the oil crisis in the 1970s, there was a significant surge in the development of electric vehicles, given the fuel price increase. Tandem vehicles designed specifically for cities appeared on the market with a design (or lack of design), where functionality took precedence. Vanguard-Sebring became the sixth US manufacturer with its CitiCar, an electric vehicle with sharp lines that did not make it beyond the 1970s, which is where it clearly belonged.
Later, in 1997, after many bizarre attempts, the General Motors EV1 model became one of the first high-performance electric vehicles on the market. With the ability to cover up to 225 kilometres with a single charge and reaching sufficient speeds for motorways, this pioneering model could compete with conventional vehicles.
The brief history of the EV1 – the thousand units offered on a leasing basis were dismantled in 2005 – lead to a worrying question: What if the lack of interest in electric vehicles was related to the autonomy, speed or price or simply the appearance of them?
Some believe in conspiracy theories behind the designs of those first electric vehicles, as if the manufacturers themselves had created them to put people off purchasing them and confirm the supremacy of combustion engine vehicles.
Egg-shaped cars with tiny wheels and impossible doors, vehicles that look like spacecrafts or simply with vulgar designs. Even in 2010, during the Automobile Fair in Paris, a few dubious models were still being presented.
Apart from simple technical reasons, those futuristic designs were intended to clearly differentiate new hybrid and electric vehicles from the rest of the conventional fleet, designed as minority models for consumers wanting to make a declaration of intent with their 100% Eco vehicles.
In other cases, as the journalist Alice Rawsthorn said in the New York Times, the designs were simply boring. “The investment needed (for a new model) is so high that manufacturers panic”, a vehicle designer told her in 2009. “If they see that a group of consumers like a specific type of vehicle and another prefers a different one, they try to make one that meets them half way. If you try to design a car that doesn’t offend anyone… How attractive will it be? Honestly, not very attractive”.
Luckily for drivers, it is a very different scenario today. Today we can drive cars that look like cars and we can love them again. Manufacturers have stopped creating extravagant designs and now focus on design innovations that really match the technological advances of the interior.
Instead of bringing out models with unpronounceable names, major brands are launching plug-in versions of their emblematic cars. Because electric vehicles are not a thing of the future, or perhaps we have travelled into the future without noticing.