Alfonso Albaisa, design director at Nissan in America, discusses electric car design, the future of clean mobility and his take on the zero-emission sports car.
Design Talks Should zero-emission cars have their own unique architecture and formal language?
Alfonso Albaisa They are finding their own unique architecture. The formal language, however, is more of a conscious effort – it’s the intentional part. The zero emission car doesn’t need its own design language, but it is important not to express it just like a regular car.
DT How has this been expressed in the Leaf electric production car, which looks more like a conventional square shaped hatchback?
AA The focus for the Leaf has been this amazing compact and powerful battery. This is a five people’s car that runs on electricity for 100 miles – this may sound easy but it is a mountain. One way to achieve this has been to make this car as aerodynamic as possible. Most people think the teardrop is the most aerodynamic shape, but it needs to be much longer to have enough flow. For a car the size of the Leaf, the square shape is the best as it controls the airflow. You want the air on the side and top to move smoothly over and end at the rear where the semi-square shape directs the air away from the car.
DT The Land Glider electric concept with its narrow architecture almost feels like a motorbike – its size making it an ideal solution for city mobility.
AA Yes the car was inspired by the new generation of two-wheelers. For stability, the Land Glider leans automatically into corners – the feeling is very natural as the driver moves with the car’s motion. This shifts the centre of gravity and adds stability to the car when going around bends. This is a perfect commuter car.
Electric vehicles create so many possibilities. If this were a traditional internal combustion engine car you would have to deal with a lot of extra baggage and weight. Instead, the flat and compact lithium-ion battery (which Nissan makes in-house and charges the motors housed inside the wheels) takes up little space and has allowed us to achieve this narrow architecture.
DT There is a lot of discussion about finding the right engine note for electric driving which is otherwise a silent experience.
AA It is such a new subject – I love the fact that we are like ‘sound brain-stormers’. It is so artistic trying to find a sound that will make you feel you are contributing to the benefits of green driving. At Nissan We don’t have the sound yet and we don’t want to do something too normal. The more luxury Nissans and the Infiniti brand would need a unique sound. Electric performance cars have tremendous power so this will have to impact on their choice of sound too. Perhaps it also needs to be geographically different as there are different cultural references.
DT Will the future car become simply another electronic gadget?
AA Electric vehicles will become gadgets in the sense that they have to connect with all the other inventions required to keep them moving, such as the little charging plates or electrically powered lanes on motorways. The need to control your car remotely is especially important with electric cars as you want to charge the car off peak and use as much as your household electricity as possible to save on the battery life. In the future this is going to go a step further so that once you plug your car in to the house electricity you have affectively connected the two worlds.
DT What will we be driving in the next ten years or so?
AA With the current electric cars, the architecture may be futuristic, but it still has a hood, and a bump covering an electric power plant. However, once the power moves entirely into the wheels, as in in-wheel-motors, then it really does free up space. It is perfect for a car like the Land Glider.
The following stage will be drive-by-wire, which basically means all the steering, shift feedback and functions are done electronically. This eliminates so many restrictions and it means that you can essentially steer from anywhere. The reality is that these features will get into our mainstream projects in around three years. The promise of full driverless freedom is a little bit further down the road.
DT Do you believe there is a place for high-performance electric cars?
AA There are people who don’t love sexy sports cars. My teenage kids, for instance, are obsessed with electric cars because they feel they are helping the environment. On the other hand, electric cars have a lot of toque so they are great for sports cars.
DT What would your approach be to designing one?
AA You essentially celebrate the engine in a sports car. Therefore with the motors housed in the wheels I would emphasize the wheels – they would be very prominent. The car would be a lot lighter in weight than say the GT-R – and definitely less brutal looking. You should celebrate mostly torque and acceleration, express nimbleness and explosive speed with a green sports car.
In the future when we will have drive-by-wire, there will be no need for a body – the driver could sit low, and centrally, and perhaps have some kind of protective shield. And because of the driverless technology, he or she could choose between having a passive or active thrill – a bit like a rollercoaster ride.
Read my report published in Wallpaper* on Nissan design.
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