26 Sep 2019

The future of today

Jim Prior writes in Forbes on why automotive cars need conventional views.

Photo credit: BMW

“I like driving in my car”, sang Madness for the first time in 1982. Recently, I concluded that driving a fossil-fuel powered car in 2019 is indeed a form of madness, so I have switched to a fully electric vehicle.

I’ve written elsewhere about the need for an environmental revolution and the potential for electric and automated cars to open up the act of travel to a much wider set of useful experiences. But a few weeks of driving my BMW i3s has helped me surface some more specific thoughts around the nature of the mindset shift that is required in society and what companies need to do to address that.

I have found driving a fully electric car is the most radically different driving experience in my motoring lifetime (my first car was a yellow Ford Escort Mark I). There are several things that combine to make that so – including reduced cost, truly engaging connected technologies, and a dash of moral smugness – but two, in particular, stand out for me as important potential catalysts towards wider adoption. Both are category-busting concepts with massive potential to further exploit. Yet I sense a risk that consumers, companies and governments may rein back on embracing the full opportunity as their bias towards established convention takes hold. The two things I’m talking about are virtual silence and radical design. Let me address each in turn.

Firstly, it is a joy to travel in a car with no engine noise. Conversations with passengers are conducted at normal pitch, the entertainment system is perfectly audible, and the vehicle is a sanctuary from the stress-buzz of traffic. Yet many of the petrol-heads I know find this concept shocking. When they raise their eyebrows at my transition to electric, I tell them that my acceleration from 0-30mph is faster, more fluid and exhilarating than theirs, no matter what they drive (as an aside, I’d argue that the industry convention of measuring 0-60mph times is a convention that has no real basis in practical need; measuring 0-30mph is much more relevant to how most people will actually drive).

And because petrol-heads love data they know this to be true. Yet the retort I’ve had more than once is, “yes, but it doesn’t make a noise!” It seems that people correlate the quality of a car to the volume of noise it makes; that they think a faster car is inferior to a slower car just because convention has taught them that fast cars make a loud noise.

But I’m confident that the silent driving experience is so radically superior and different that it will act as a one-way Damascene gate. Yet EU and US regulators and manufacturers may be about to undermine this by demanding that all new electric vehicles be required to emit a noise similar to that of an internal combustion engine.

I understand the pedestrian safety concerns, but this really does feel like a retrogressive step. By eroding one key point of distinction in the electric driving experience I believe that a key transformational reason to switch to an electric car would be removed. More so, for as long as driving experiences are characterised by a dominant audio signature, the many possibilities for automated driving to turn vehicles into small-scale cinemas, offices, restaurants, or spas will be compromised. The future of cars is not mechanical noise. I urge governments and manufacturers to think more innovatively about how to solve safety concerns and to move on more imaginatively than by demanding the 21st Century equivalent of requesting that Henry Ford make the Model T clip-clop like a horse.

Secondly, the design experience of my electric car is a subtly yet remarkably different thing. To be honest, I am not in love with the exterior styling of the i3 to the extent that I have been with other cars I have previously owned. But the interior is a design triumph. BMW have exploited the space created by the lack of need for a transmission tunnel, used an impressive array of sustainable materials, built a fully-connected system of technologies and created a place that feels more like the First Class cabin on a premium airline than the inside of a car. The languid ease of ‘one pedal driving’ adds to the sense that conventional vehicles have been left behind in the rear-view mirror. The car is a place not an object; a room of possibility not a driver’s seat.

But the automotive industry needs to do more here, more quickly. I’m concerned that the crop of actual or promised vehicles we see are, in design terms, failing to capitalise on the opportunity. From an exterior design perspective, they are either too conventional, too middle-of-the road, or too physically and emotionally fat to bring about the transformation that we need.

For the last few decades of the automotive industry design has been dominated by engineers and economists as they have sought to fit fossil-fuel mechanics to a price-point in the most efficient way. But the freedoms that the more minimal componentry of electric cars bring now open up far more possibilities for beautiful and innovative design. The future of the automotive industry is not a 2m wide, $150,000 saloon that looks like something that already exists.

"The future is game-changing beauty to the standard that the Jaguar e-type, Ferrari Dino, or Pontiac Firebird offered in their first days – and at mass market prices. Manufacturers have been slow and conservative here and they need to speed up. Cars need to go the way that Steve Jobs and Johnny Ive took Apple, layering aesthetic, emotionally compelling beauty over the skeleton of rational superiority to make a completely transformational proposition not just an incremental step."

By fully embracing these two attributes of electric cars – virtual silence and radical design – the movement towards the tipping-point of EV adoption will accelerate. But by compromising them back towards conventional expectations I worry that the EV revolution won’t get off the grid. The industry needs to be brave and fast, else the madness may prevail.

First published in Forbes.