design theory: THE FACE OF ELECTRIC CARS

Hybrid and electric cars have grown in popularity exponentially in recent years.  While the electric car has actually been around for over 100 years, for many people it is a new entry to the automobile market.  It seems a pretty safe bet that electric cars are the way of the future.  The world will eventually run out of oil, and unless the world populace makes a sudden conversion to complete reliance on their own two feet, electric cars seem likely to become the norm.

As fully electric cars become more and more common, the design of automobiles will likely see some changes.  Many of the design features we take for granted as what 'makes a car, a car' (headlights, fenders, grilles) are the direct resultant of various utilitarian requirements.  Some of these requirements will no longer apply to electric cars.  Most notably the front grille, which is responsible for allowing air into the radiator to cool the engine, will no longer be needed.

This poses an interesting design problem for many car companies, as the shape and size of the grille has become a signature for many companies.  BMW has their kidney grille, Jeep has the trademarked seven-bar grille, Volvo has a diagonal bar slashing through it's grilles, Dodge has the four-part cross, etc.  The car designers will need to find a way to seamlessly blend these signature faces into new designs, as well as please a public that has grown accustomed to seeing grilles on the front of their cars.

People's desire for a 'nose cone fitting of a super car' has actually driven a third-party market, designing and building front grilles for electric cars that look like they belong in front of an internal combustion engine.  Over time, we develop expectations and comfort levels with designs.  The origin of the front grill may be purely practical; but it has now come to represent the personality of the car.

kidney "grilles" on the BMW i3           image: autoevolution.com

solid nosecone of the tesla model s           image: arstechnica.com

The front of a car is its face.  It defines the character of the car.  Car companies have spent decades developing their unique brand and identity through the design of the grille.  So now, with electric motors no longer requiring ventilation through the front of the car, how do they keep their long-developed brands?  At the moment, many car designers are simply ignoring it and applying fake grilles.  When will this transitional design fade away?  When will car designers invent new and interesting ways to treat the front fascia of a car?

One car that is trying to confront the issue very purposefully is the Nissan Leaf.  By placing the charging port on the nose of the car, the designers seem to be acknowledging the design issue head-on, replacing one utilitarian design feature with another.

the charging port at the front of the nissan leaf           image: automotnews.com

Fashion designer Charles James once said, "A great designer does not seek acceptance.  He challenges popularity, and by the force of his convictions renders popular in the end what the public hates at first sight."  While perhaps a little harsh, the quote can be applied to the design evolution of electric cars.  The public may hate the sight of a car without a front grille, but a great new design for the fascia could make us all forget about those funny metal grilles that used to be on the face of our cars.