I Will Not Drive the Blob
A look at the electric car concepts from Munich shows how German automakers are still struggling to package EVs.
We've all seen it before, the blob. No hood, no trunk, just a voluminous cavern with humans on the inside and some wild styling features on the outside. The word "mobility" is thrown around, there are exotic yet sustainable and/or recyclable materials—which is good, because usually you never see it again. Hopefully, they can stuff it all in the blue bin. It's a lesson shown time and time again: If you want to get people excited, a formless thing is not going to do it.
When you look at certain electric vehicle concepts with varying degrees of autonomy baked in—whether that technology is viable or not—the design trend becomes clear. The blob is the future of cars. And I do not want to drive the blob. In fact, I'd wager nobody wants to drive the blob.
Rivian, Lucid, Ford, General Motors, and other American automakers (even Tesla) all understand this. For some reason, though, German automakers are not only clinging to this anti-shape, but trying to base entire EV product lines around it. The blob does have its aerodynamic advantages, which help negate the range penalties that come with a cabin full of energy-sapping creature comforts. But what matters now in selling EVs is not about proving that electric cars can be hyper-efficient eco-pods with burlap seats and mushroom plastics. It's about showing that they can fit into people's lives in a way that doesn't challenge their understanding of the world around them.
They can be pickup trucks, they can be Hummers, hell, they can even be Mustangs. As Ford CEO Jim Farley put it in his chat with us last month, we're in the second inning of electrification, and what the buying trends show is that people want icons.
The concepts and forthcoming new cars we saw at this week's Munich auto show prove the Germans don't really seem to agree with this—the reason the EQS is not just an electric S-Class is because even Mercedes is stuck thinking EVs have to shout about the future in very loud ways. They are a generation behind their American competition in this regard, and it shows. Munich gave us concepts and production cars from German automakers that more resemble the first-generation EVs from other automakers than anything else. The BMW i Vision Circular is full of smart, interesting ideas. But it's packaged in a form that makes its promises feel utterly removed from the real world.
American automakers, even nascent electric startups, are already a generation ahead of this phase. The upcoming Lucid Air is miles more conventional-looking and handsome than the EQS, with a well defined long hood and roofline creating a solid base for more futuristic styling cues. Why does Mercedes's latest and greatest electric vehicle, a car that's supposed to have the same gravitas as an S-Class, look the way it does? And don't say aerodynamics when the far better looking Model S exists—and that design is a decade old. The EQS is an extremely nice place to be inside, and Mercedes doubtlessly packed the car with a trainload of gadgets, but in a couple of years when a guy in a Lucid pulls up next to you, well, you'll just look like a dork.
Just the same, consider Ford, or General Motors. They're so far past the blob, they're not even in the same universe anymore. GM still makes the Bolt, sure, but it's also set to release the Hummer EV, a chiseled, 9,000-pound lump of un-aerodynamic testosterone that makes no effort to be anything close to sustainable outside of being electric.
The same can be said for Ford's F-150 Lightning. Besides that light bar across the top of the grille, it's a regular truck. And the Mach-E? That was going to be a blob before Jim Farley intervened in 2017 and ordered a redesign to make it worthy of the Mustang name. (Whether or not it is a real Mustang depends on who you ask.) Even Dodge is supposedly planning a modern muscle car as its first full EV.
Last but not least, take Rivian. The startup automaker—flush with so much money from investors that it's building another factory before it's even sold a single truck—isn't risking it with the blob. In fact, that's probably one of the reasons why it got so much funding in the first place. It looks distinctive, but it's not deviating from forms that people know and love, shapes that make sense. Make chargers as plentiful and functional as gas stations, and most would be fine with a normal-looking car they simply don't have fill with 89. It's telling that one of the most common criticisms of the F-150 Lightning you see out there in forums and comment sections isn't that it'll never be a real F-150—it's that the front lightbar is just too flashy. "They should've left the front alone!"
Apart from efforts like the upcoming Mercedes EQB, a near carbon-copy of the gas-burning GLB compact SUV, what's holding the Germans back? There is no single answer, but it's first important to remember that the German auto industry is still dealing with the aftermath of Dieselgate, even six years later. The consequences of VW and others manipulating their vehicles to make emissions targets during testing—and the subsequent massive legal and financial ramifications—still weigh heavy on the German auto industry as a whole. Wouldn't it be nice to get as clean of a break from that as possible? Forget a transition into regular EVs, the future is the aerodynamic blob, and we're building it now. That stark contrast may be intentional. The blob is like screaming "We're past all that, and this is the future," just a lot louder than anyone cares to hear.
Then consider that German EVs have never really been normal. BMW's i3 and i8 were basically concept cars approved for production. Also, keep in mind the i3 was released all the way back in 2013, which is already eight years ago. Where is the Bavarian automaker's second generation of EVs, you might ask? Well, BMW's board started wondering the same thing, and it lost its CEO because, among other reasons, those cars never materialized. In other words, BMW should be past the blob phase by now, but it's just getting back into the swing of things.
Mercedes, on the other hand, is releasing its first mass-market EVs now. It hasn't had the time to learn—despite others learning this—that it would be best if its electric vehicles were all normal. The EQG, for instance, will doubtlessly sell like hotcakes because it looks almost exactly like a regular G-Wagen. Compare that to the EQS that looks like a two-tone Dodge Intrepid with a fuel door for washer fluid. That's the flagship? Seriously?
The Volkswagen group is only doing slightly better. Porsche sells as many decidedly non-egg-shaped Taycans as it does 911s. Audi is working with much of the same technology and platforms that Porsche is, with the result being similar products. However, even that massive conglomerate is falling short of the Americans. VW's ID.4 is a strange blob and its reception can be summarized by a thousand people in a big auditorium all saying "Eh" simultaneously. Where are the electric versions of Volkswagens that captivated the world? Where's the electric Beetle or electric Bus? Those products have to come soon.
And in the same breath, BMW’s iX, undoubtedly an important SUV for the company, has been pretty polarizing. A car minus the big grilles and the unique proportions might've been a better bet; imagine the consumer reception a straightforward, full electric X3 would receive in America. BMW makes one, mind you, the iX3. It's just not sold here, a country where it's on pace to move over 70,000 X3s this year. Just the same, the automaker still sells loads of 3 and 4 Series, but an EV even close to that, the i4, won't be on sale until March of 2022. That should've been the first thing they made!
While the Germans are still effectively unveiling their first-generation blobs, America is moving on. Cadillac will unveil its Celestiq sedan soon which, while having a funny name, at least doesn't have a random assortment of letters like EQS to represent itself. It will also doubtlessly look better than the Mercedes—not a tall order—and have at least comparable if not superior range. It's also only a matter of time before Ford starts teasing a legitimate electric Mustang, and then an electric off-roader like the Bronco. Heck, Jeep has already done this with the Wrangler 4xe, which went on sale earlier this year and is already one of the country's most popular plug-in hybrids.
Normative EVs are what people here want. They want pickup trucks, they want SUVs, they want cars that mean something. They don't want the blob. I don't want the blob. I will not drive the blob.
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