BMW's new electric MINI
The rising cost of gas for automobiles has kicked-started the development of electric and hybrid cars out of the realm of niche and into mainstream, albeit early adopter mainstream. BMW just announced a new electric version of their MINI and Tesla Motors has just released their high-end electric sports car. While this is certainly good for helping to move energy consumption away from specifically using fossil fuels (electric cars can get their power from wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, or other non-crude based supplies), there is another opportunity that waits in the wings:
The return of the boutique coachbuilder.
Over the last century, the breadth of coachbuilders designing the bodies for the chassis of other car manufacturers has waned to the point of being rather exotic. To be sure, companies such as Ghia and Pininfarina still do their thing, but we don't see novel designs like the Karmann Ghias anymore. The advent of unibody construction has made custom coachbuilding practically impossible¹.
With the advent of electric motors and drive systems comes the potential for car manufacturers to go back to the days when a chassis was sold as-is. Coachworks would then build their own unique body on top of a standard base. Will the simplified electric car allow a new industry of coach manufactures and body shops cater to smaller groups of car buyers? I hope so.
Currently, Tesla Motors is beginning to sell their new electric sports car that will be sure to turn heads. And why shouldn't it? The body is based off of a Lotus Elise, after Lotus won the design contest for the bodywork. This is a prime example of one company focusing on the motor (a complex and challenging design problem in an of itself) and another focusing on the more visual and tangible experience.
As we speak, both Ford and GM and struggling for relevance in a world that passed them by three decades ago. Is this their opportunity to turn their manufacturing ability into creating inexpensive and easily produced and maintained chassis? Dealerships could potentially partner with as many coachbuilders that they wanted to offer customers actual choice in the vehicle they drove.
I hope that the change to focus on electric motor vehicles is also an opportunity for a move back to more players in the actual design and production of auto styling. The competition and diversity would promote an amazing influx of creativity in an industry that has become, frankly, quite pedestrian. And focusing on creating chassis would allow Ford, GM, and their ilk a graceful way to move on from an industry that they helped devolve into so much cruft to one where their engineering expertise can push electric chassis development with more efficient and cost effective technologies.
¹ Wikipedia, CoachbuildersPhoto: BMW MINI, egmcartech.com