Electric Vehicles Send Designers Back to the Drawing Board

Last Updated Sep 21, 2009 10:25 AM EDT

Switching to batteries doesn't just change what makes cars go.

It also allows designers to rethink the basics of how most cars are put together today, with the engine in front, occupants in the middle and cargo space in back.

"The whole form of the vehicle, we have to throw it right out the door," said Michael Robinet, vice president global vehicle forecasts for CSM Worldwide, in a Sept. 18 webinar following the press preview for the Frankfurt auto show.

For instance, some electric vehicles at the Frankfurt show, like the Audi e-tron, based on the R8 sports car, have four separate electric motors, one at each wheel, called "hub motors." That opens up new possibilities for the passenger compartment, and completely changes how a car will behave in a crash, Robinet said.

"The e-platform in future, say by 2020, will not need an engine in the front. It will use hub motors at wheel ends, for instance. That changes the crumple zones. You don't have a tunnel running down the middle (for a drive shaft). If you don't have a front engine, you don't have a lump of iron that very much become a problem in a crash situation," he said.

That could possibly allow occupants to sit closer to the front of a vehicle, for instance, he said.

"The move to electric vehicles is going to give us a huge push toward creativity and new solutions, which is a good thing," said journalist Jens Meiner, who also spoke at the webinar. The Society of Automotive Analysts and the Automotive Market Research Council co-sponsored the webinar.

Both speakers agreed that this year's Frankfurt show is a milestone towards electric vehicles and hybrids becoming much more mainstream for European automakers. European car companies, especially the Germans, had been relying much more on diesels to provide them with high-mileage models and a "greener" image.

In this year's Frankfurt show, "Diesels take a back set to electrification," they said.

Photo: Audi