Designing the future: Why electric vehicles are changing the way we make cars

How to design a car for the future
How to design a car for the future

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How to design a car for the future 01:50

(CNN)No car manufacturer has a longer history of making internal combustion-powered cars than Mercedes-Benz.

Which means that, for well over a century, Mercedes has been designing cars to meet the needs of, not just people, but engines too.
People-focused design has given us upholstered seats, car stereos and Apple CarPlay. Engines, on the other hand, have inspired long hoods, air-gulping grills and chrome side pipes.
    But what if it were possible to forget the engine and just design cars for people?
    Plug-in electric vehicles, with their small motors and flexibly shaped battery packs, make that very nearly possible.

    A new design freedom

    For Mercedes designers working on the new Mercedes-EQ line of electric vehicles, removing the internal combustion engine is an exciting opportunity but also a challenge -- how to capitalize on the design freedom promised by electric vehicles without losing touch with the Mercedes' long history.
    For instance, electric motors don't need nearly as much air as combustion engines so you could lose the grill, right?
    Not so fast. It's still a Mercedes.
    "We can't get rid of the face," said Robert Lesnik, director of exterior design for Mercedes. "This is something from the past that is definitely an icon. A Mercedes should look like a Mercedes."
    But in the Generation EQ concept -- the preview of the first EQ model unveiled at the 2016 Paris Motor Show -- the grill is really a screen, like the front of an iPhone. Horizontal slats and the three-pointed star are drawn in bright blue pixels. The concept made another appearance at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, earlier this month.
    Mercedes Benz Generation EQ
    In the Mercedes-EQ, the headlights are not separate elements, distinct from the grill. They're part of the continuous surface, adding to an impression of almost impossible smoothness.
    Mercedes' design philosophy has long focused on cleanliness and simplicity, Lesnik explains. There should be a minimum of extraneous decoration, he says. Electric drive technology makes simple design even, well, simpler.
    "If you look at our new Generation EQ you really see how clean the car is. There are no lines, no creases, no undercuts."
    The proportion of the EQ, more than anything, makes clear its relationship to the rest of Mercedes' SUVs. It stands out but it's still part of the family.
    "First of all, for me, as a designer, the proportion is the essential thing of Mercedes," he says.
    It's true for all types of vehicles, of course. Most car brands have a formula for how the roofline, hood, door-sides and trunk should all play off one another to form a unique shape that communicates, even on a foggy day, who made that car.
    Electric cars won't change that, Lesnik insists.
    "We really concentrate on the pure shape, on sensuality in the shape. Sculpture will become much more important."
    Even in an electric world, the past will shape the future.
    "Sure, you can do whatever you want but in the end it has to be Mercedes."