Electromobility is changing vehicle design. Robert Lesnik, Head of Exterior Design at Mercedes-Benz, explains in an interview what’s in and what is out.
Mr Lesnik, it’s not just technicians who are finding that electromobility poses new problems. Designers are also being forced to adapt. What are the specific challenges vehicle designers are facing?
Robert Lesnik: I prefer to see them less as challenges and more as new opportunities. For those models that come in a combustion and an electric version, there were no great visible changes. They just lost their drive train, up to and including the exhaust. But if we don’t even have a combustion model in the first place, all sorts of entirely new possibilities open up, and we are able to work with entirely new proportions. Of course those still need to be well balanced and attractive, so that our cars continue to evoke desire. We call that “purpose design” which means design based on the intended use.
And a distinct “electro look” will help with that?
It’s our opinion that the time is ripe for electronic vehicles to have their own design characteristics, and that it’s ok for a new electro look that differentiates itself formally from a combustion vehicle. With our Concept EQ we deliberately chose a different design for the front, the rear and the window layouts, creating a new formal unit. We call this “signature graphics”, and our aim is to create an entirely new impression. On top of that, all elements should appear flush and aerodynamic. That means smaller recesses and reduced stepping. Everything blends seamlessly together, like in aircraft design.
Will car buyers have to get used to a new design idiom?
If you deliberately choose to design differently, you can opt for purpose design, as we have done with the EQ architecture. But one thing is clear, in the end the vehicle still has to be recognisable as a Mercedes-Benz. The new models of the EQ product brand must remain emotional and intelligent. That is the contrast at the heart of our design. It’s ok if unexpected and surprising things happen along the way, but they must always fit into our design philosophy.
How will the electro-design differ from the design idiom of the conventionally powered models? After all, combustion vehicles are going to be on our roads for quite some time yet.
For combustion vehicles, a lot depends on the engine position, with an correspondingly long bonnet. If you can do away with the engine, then you can say goodbye to the old familiar look in this respect. And that’s what we are going to do. The new EQ variants will be designed in collaboration with the various design departments.
What creative freedoms does the new technology bring?
By getting rid of the combustion engine and other components, such as transmission, exhaust and radiator, we are gaining additional space that will benefit the passengers. As designers we are very happy to take advantage of this opportunity.
Without the traditional engine noise, other sources of noise suddenly become a lot more noticeable.
How do you bridge the gap between traditional design and the new forms of electromobility?
The two types of design are going to coexist for quite a while. The first vehicle from the EQ family will arrive in 2019, and by 2025 we will have at least ten completely electronic models on the market. Both body shapes will follow the principles of the Mercedes-Benz design philosophy, with the EQ models distinguished by some unique design elements. This includes the design of the front, which will create a unique, individual character. We have already presented some of the elements in Paris, such as the slot in the cowl for the windscreen wipers that only opens when the wipers are needed. This allows us to make significant improvements, both to the aerodynamics and above all to the aeroacoustics. Because without the traditional engine noise other sources of noise suddenly become a lot more noticeable.
How do you manage to transfer the face of the brand to the new drive technology so that an e-Mercedes is immediately recognisable as a Mercedes-Benz?
With all of our vehicles we will be concentrating on the proportions – the lines will be smoother. The face of the brand remains the same for both types of drive technology, but that does not rule out variations. Even today, we are already the only brand with different front sections. We’ve got the traditional three-pointed star on the bonnet, the star in the centre of the radiator grille, and the sporty face of the AMG. And now we’re adding another variation, the face of the EQ, where the technology allows us a wide range of design options. But it must always remain possible to recognise a Mercedes-Benz as such from a distance.
It must always remain possible to recognise a Mercedes-Benz as such from a distance.
Are these new proportions being discussed with the designers of the conventional models?
Our design teams are already working on different model series across the board. And of course there is some discussion, and everyone knows all the model series. There needs to be a strategic plan to ensure that everything fits together at the end, when the cars are on display at the dealership. It has to be completely obvious that they all belong to the same family and brand, and this applies just as much to the new EQ models.
The shape of the current concept eq is that of an SUV. Will this be followed by models in other formats?
The term SUV is generally associated with large, heavy vehicles with a relatively upright greenhouse. I prefer to speak of a crossover, i. e. a model which is positioned in between the familiar segments and proportions. The appearance of our Concept EQ is less bulky, but it has the advantage of the higher seat position of an SUV. The roof is flatter, but it still provides a lot of headroom. At the rear we don’t have the typical SUV look, but rather a touch of shooting brake, to improve the aerodynamics. We have chosen this shape deliberately, because it is contemporary.
Finally a glimpse ahead: where is ev design going in the future?
For the moment we are working on this first generation, and that will turn a few heads, as people may not have been expecting that from us. We have lots of ideas. For example, when we’re talking about autonomous driving, it raises the question of whether we want to carry that through to the outside. We are certainly looking forward to the new possibilities.