User Menu

Will electric cars actually be desirable?

As cars become more closely mechanically related to white goods, will we still care about them?

Design guru and car enthusiast Stephen Bayley argues electric cars are functionally useless.

There is no magazine on newsagents’ shelves called What Fridge? No Top Cooker on your TVs on a Sunday night. Washing Machine And Dryer Conversions is conspicuous by its absence. We don’t, in general, venerate our “white goods”. They are tools to do domestic tasks that we can’t be bothered with.

Cars, until now at any rate, have been very different. The component parts of a fridge are not that different from the component parts of a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO. Steel, some rubber, a few alloys of other metals, some plastics, all screwed, bolted, and welded together. A contemporary Electrolux is unlikely to sell for circa €20 million at a major auction though.

Our relationship with cars, influenced by such other desires, traits, and frailties as sex, sexism, ego, and performance, is incredibly complicated. It’s bound up with emotion and the reflection of one’s own personality in ways that other products just aren’t. As Jackie Stewart said, you can tell a man his performance in the bedroom department is lacking, but you can’t criticise his driving. . .

V12 vacuum cleaner

This may be about to all utterly change. As we make the switch to electric motoring, cars’ relationship to white goods moves a little closer. There is no 5.5-litre V12 vacuum cleaner (more’s the pity. . .) but there are not many fundamental differences between the electric motors that drive the latest generation of battery-powered cars and that which drives a Kenwood Chef. One’s a little bigger, a little more sophisticated, but the basic concept is the same.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s five minutes to midnight for the motorcar, as we know it. It’s probably not going to go away but its form is going to be so different, so much that we can now see the past century of the car as a finite historical period.”

These are the words of Stephen Bayley. Bayley is what one might call a design guru. He helped found, along with Terrence Conran, the Design Museum in London. He was, briefly, the creative director of that same city’s Millennium Dome. He’s also a car nut, pure and simple, and has spent the past several years writing a column for the monthly magazine Octane. Those columns have now been collected into a book, dubbed The Age Of Combustion. It’s Bayley’s thesis that, with this age now at an end, so too will be our passion for cars.

“Being an urban person, I decided to try an electric car last year,” Bayley tells me. “I felt that I should. So I got myself a BMW i3S. I have to say, for all sorts of reasons, that it was the most unsatisfactory experience in every way. Electric cars are just functionally useless.

“They’re fine for short trips, but you can’t do a journey in them. That takes away a lot of the rationale of owning a car, whether or not you do regularly jump into yours and drive to the horizon, at least the prospect of it exists. You can’t jump into your electric car and head for the hills, because there aren’t any chargers in the hills.”

I’m about to counter that such is the fault of infrastructure, and a fault which can be remedied with suitable investment, but Bayley continues before I can do so. “My personal thing is that I don’t like the electric car experience. I just felt that I was being driven by the car, not the other way around. I like to be in charge, and part of the pleasure of cars, of driving, as it used to be, was that I liked the engagement. Literally the intercourse with the machine. I liked having gears to play with and judging the braking.”

Bayley acknowledges the inherent irrationality of all of this. “If God had wanted to design an engine he would never have made it like a petrol engine. You know, to serve the reciprocating engine, the piston reaches its maximum speed microseconds before its comes to a dead halt.

Apocalyptic predictions

“It’s crazy. But there are so many different approaches, there are so many different types of petrol engines that you get. If you’re going to have an air-cooled flat-twin with a 500cc, you probably end up designing something like a 2CV around it. If you’ve got a 4-litre V12 double overhead camshafts thing with six pairs of twin choke Weber carburettors, you probably end up with something that looks a bit like Ferrari GTO. If you’ve got a cast iron V8, with 427-cubic inches we end up with a Mustang. Whereas, electric motors are all the same.”

One who disagrees with Bayley’s apocalyptic predictions is Gilles Vidal. Vidal, formerly the head of design at Peugeot, has crossed the river Marne and gone to work for Parisian rivals Renault, and his first work out of the gate was a striking reworking of the classic Renault 5 of the 1970s and 1980s, rethought as an electric car. It, or something very like it, will be on sale within the next few years. As for electric cars lacking desire?

Not according to Vidal: “Well, maybe the future might be perceived has hazardous, or dire, but I think that people won’t want, in their lives, to renounce or to turn their backs on interesting things or to go for things that are more dull or more standard or clinical. I believe that people, even in times of crisis, they still want to enjoy life, to have access to interesting things. Maybe you want to have pleasing-looking things, rather than something that’s reassuring but maybe also a bit boring,” he told The Irish Times.

Of course, one has to understand the perspectives of both sides. Bayley is a professional critic, looking in from the outside. Vidal is at the heart of the car industry, and is doubtless defending his patch. One hopes that the truth is rather closer to Vidal’s argument, but one must surely be equally concerned that it’s Bayley who’s hit the utilitarian electric nail on the head, here.

Expand