This is why all electric cars look exactly the same

The future of car design is all about skateboards and top hats. The former refers to the flat, often self-supporting chassis of an electric vehicle, housing a large battery pack in the middle and motors at either end, along with the suspension, brakes and wheels. Upon this sits the top hat, which is car designer-speak for the body and interior of a vehicle.

With far fewer moving parts than an internal combustion engine, the battery pack and motors sat in this skateboard chassis perform in a near-universal way, no matter which manufacturer the vehicle comes from.

Power output can be changed, along with battery size, regenerative braking strength and the voltage of the system architecture. But these variables are dwarfed by those of the internal combustion engine, where cylinder quantity and layout join bore, stroke, compression ratio, turbocharging, supercharging and sound to create a significantly more variable means of rotating four wheels. This variability creates character, resulting in the differences between a muscular Mercedes-AMG V8, a revvy Honda four-cylinder and a smooth Bentley W12.

But in a not-so-distant future, car manufacturers could well buy these electric skateboard chassis from a third party, like how Dell or HP source processors from Intel, then attach its own body, or top hat. “We are positioning to be the ‘Intel Inside’ for EV,” says Daniel Barel, CEO of Ree Automotive, an electric vehicle platform startup. “What we bring is a blank canvas… any shape [of vehicle], any size, any weight, any kind of body technology and autonomy.”

So what happens in 2035, when the sale of new internal combustion cars in the UK is to be outlawed? Unless there is an explosion in electric motor diversity between now and then, bold new design and a renewed emphasis on brand identity through aesthetics, rather than drivetrain character, will take centre stage. Car brands that used to rely on engineering superiority will no longer have such an advantage. Simply put, the car’s power plant will no longer be the key battle ground. 

“It’s a designer’s dream, really,” says Mark Stubbs, design director at Radford and alumnus of Bugatti, Lotus, Ford and Lego. “Everyone is going to be using a similar, if not the same, skateboard chassis, so there’s very little differentiation. Trying to leverage these skateboards gives us the freedom as designers to push the boundaries and create unique proportions and shapes.”

Ian Callum, CALLUM design director

Ian Callum, former design director of Jaguar, agrees. “It will give design teams more opportunity to try different things, and those things then become more exciting. What happens above the platform is quite exciting. I think it gives designers more freedom.”

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