Reinventing the car, episode 6
The most spectacular feature of electric vehicles is the freedom it gives for the structural design of the car. It will also radically change the way vehicles are manufactured. This is episode 6 of our series on the reinvention of cars. It starts with some fiction.
by Philippe Chain & Frederic Filloux
Mombasa, 2030 — Kenya has become a major player in car manufacturing for Sub-Saharan Africa. Over the last five years, the country has undergone the same technological leapfrogging for transportation as it did for telecommunication.
Twenty years earlier, Kenya managed to bypass the painstaking deployment of landlines to massively adopt mobile telecommunications. The move unleashed a flurry of services that lifted millions out of poverty by boosting banking and commercial services.
For transportation, the shift came from the modular architecture allowed by electric vehicles. Kenya never had to build any giant assembly plants to develop its car and small truck industry. Each week, in the port of Mombasa, ships offload scores of containers stuffed with what are called “skateboards”, i.e the wheeled platform that constitutes the basis for any car or small truck.
Previous episodes of the series:
01: The car, reinvented. From scratch.
02: Your next car will be electric
03: How Tesla cracked the code of automobile innovation
04: The Global Race for Battery Supply
05: Code on Wheels
Skateboards (also called “boards”) host the key components of the vehicle: the frame (FKA the chassis), the battery pack, the motor(s), ECU, the braking and steering systems and suspensions (some skateboards are more advanced than others, we will talk about it later). It looks like this:
None of the skateboards that arrive in Mombasa carry the name of legacy car manufacturers like Ford or Volkswagen. They bear the logos of startups created in 2010–2020: Canoo (USA), REE (Israel), Rivian (USA), OSV (Italy, USA, China), or Bollinger (USA) to name but a few. In the suburbs of Mombasa, an industrial zone has been nicknamed “car city”: a dozen companies are located there, specialized in the completion of EVs for all sorts of purposes: passenger cars, utility trucks, food trucks, school buses, even heavy-duty pickups, and all-terrain vehicles. These companies design and manufacture what is known as the “upper-body” or “top hat” in the jargon. Here are a few examples for Canoo, a board maker based in Los Angeles:
One platform, five iterations: a seven-passenger van, a sedan, a pickup, an RV and two variations of cargo
In Africa, in response to durability constraints, skateboards are designed with higher ground clearance, bigger wheels and thicker tires, like this one designed by Bollinger Motors:
Some versions of its high-end all-terrain vehicle resemble the iconic Land Rover than once roamed Africa’s dirt-roads :
Now, in 2030, Bollinger is aiming at replacing the Toyota LandCruiser or Hilux.
While meeting the skateboard manufacturers’ specifications, top hats made in Africa are often cruder, made from riveted aluminum plates, to lower the price.
This is the Sub-Saharan Africa of the 2030s, where micro solar-powered service stations have largely replaced roadside storage of gasoline. Thanks to bulky but inexpensive batteries, energy is stored during daylight, and 50 solar panels deliver roughly the same range (around 1200 km) to an EV that a hundred liters of gasoline stored in hazardous conditions previously did.
This fiction is based on actual trends.
The first one is the tendency observed in many developing countries to leapfrog technology when given the opportunity. We witnessed it for mobile communications and associated services. A similar shift is underway for solar and renewable energy and mobility will be next.
The second trend is the steady improvement in battery capacity that goes with a sharp decrease in price per kilowatt/hour.
The third and most important is the upcoming revolution in manufacturing.
A radical and global decentralization
EV designs could lead to an atomization of the car building infrastructure. While the scenario stated above is based on realistic assumptions, it has many uncertainties such as the strategies of the different players and stakeholders, as well as the attractiveness of various countries, itself dependent on their political and economic stability, etc.
But the logic looks inescapable. Smaller plants will likely make a relatively modest number of skateboard versions while the relative simplicity of assembling upper bodies will allow regional and local manufacturers to flourish. Instead of large, dedicated ships transporting 8,500 cars on 13 decks between Yokohama and Mombasa, for instance, we will see regular container ships off-loading standard 40-foot “boxes”, each of them stuffed with 8 to 12 skateboards delivered like any other merchandise. There will be no more need for 10,000-space parking lots to accommodate a single shipment of cars. Components will arrive in containers before they are loaded onto a semi-truck to go to the assembly plants, large or small, that are a few miles away.
This shift will create a highly decentralized web of manufacturing facilities, each producing upper bodies in accordance with the regional market needs: full-featured urban taxis in Singapore, basic and robust pickup trucks in Nigeria, or school-buses in Manilla. Incidentally, it will lead to the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs tied to this new car industry in countries that are currently only importers of finished automobiles and trucks.
Spare parts distributions will follow the same path. The various complicated versions of the combustion engine will be replaced by simple electric engines 5 to 10 times lighter and 10 times cheaper. Battery packs, compacted in a plate affixed to the car floor, will be included in the platform or also be designed to be loaded in containers and transported wherever needed.
Western and Asian markets will undergo the same revolution with the split between the lower and upper parts of the car, leading to a massive decentralization for the completion phase of the car. Utility vehicles will drive innovation: last year Amazon announced a plan to deploy 100,000 delivery trucks based on the Rivian platform. The Israeli platform maker REE last week signed an agreement with the Indian carmaker Mahindra to build commercial EVs.
However, Western markets could be slower to switch to the dual skateboard/top hat architecture, for various reasons. One is the weight of legacy practices at traditional carmakers. While Volkswagen-Audi claims to be ready for the big leap, they will actually rely on five or six platforms from which models will be iterated.
Other impediments include the stringent safety regulations in countries where any car must be able to sustain a 40mph impact as a standard and mandatory feature. This too has to evolve: it doesn’t make great sense to demand the same crash resistance for a small delivery truck dealing with urban traffic, than for a sedan zipping down highways. The small truck doesn’t need long beams and crash-boxes as in a Tesla (see episode 3). For a large part, despite a strong innovative DNA, the design of the Model S was dependent on the compulsory safety features. For instance, Tesla’s designers couldn’t get around the 600 to 800 millimeters of compression zone needed to absorb a frontal shock. Defining the regulations around vehicles in accordance with their actual use will allow more creative designs.
Pushing the concept of radical modularity further will require some decisive innovations. One of them is the steer-by-wire and brake-by-wire (nicknamed “X-by-wire” in the industry). To put it simply, it means removing the steering column as well as the hydraulic braking system.
To stop a traditional car, the driver depresses the brake pedal, which is attached to a master-cylinder that sends hydraulic pressure to secondary cylinders located in each wheel. For steering, the turn of the wheel is transmitted to a rack that moves the wheels. Since the 1950s, the manual steering action has been amplified by a power steering device, initially hydraulic and more recently electric, which has become a mandatory feature needed to pivot the wheels of a two-ton car.
Now we are talking about removing the hydraulic circuit and mechanical elements. X-by-wire means the pedal or the steering wheel will send electrical impulses that activate actuators to pivot the wheels or squeeze the brakes. The aerospace industry made the transition to fly-by-wire in the late 1960’swith the French Concorde, then extended it to the Airbus family. It is now standard for any modern aircraft. Its adoption by the car industry has been much slower even if the benefits are widespread in terms of space-saving, weight, and simplification of manufacturing.
Legacy carmakers might have a hard time keeping up with innovation. Long development cycles, the “not invented here” syndrome, pre-existing large assembly lines, reluctance to tackle risky innovations like x-by-wire — more broadly, a widespread conservatism — won’t help. As tempting as it sounds, switching to the modular skateboard structure will take a while.Unless some manufacturers choose to team up with newcomers, such as the recent Hyundai and Canoo announcement, Skateboards, and new generation EVs will likely emerge with the help of one of the new crop of innovators.
REE’s bet on “Corners”
The Tel-Aviv-based startup REE has pushed the skateboard concept quite far. In principle, its approach is the way forward. I spoke with its CEO Daniel Barel.
“The car is a very old concept when you think about it”, says Daniel Barel. “The main components have been around for a century. Brakes, steering systems, and suspensions have only gone through incremental innovations. With REE, we wanted to start with a blank canvas to build mobility solutions”.
The main feature of REE’s platform is the principle of “corners”: an integrated component attached to the wheel that includes all the key elements: propulsion, steering, braking, etc. Here are the details (click to enlarge):
The corner system carries multiple advantages. By removing the motors, the drivetrain, and other parts, it frees up a large space between the wheels. According to REE’s CEO, it is a perfect fit for what he calls “mission-specific vehicles” that carry different requirements in terms of size, power, speed, and crash-resistance.
“Today, an OEM [Original Equipment Manufacturer] is a big monster integrator and also a strong brand”, says Barel. “But the notion of brands is also shifting. When hailing a Uber, no one cares about the brand. Same for any delivery truck. The service is what matters.”
Hence the new players like him: platform providers, car-as-a-service providers, and data providers. REE intends to be present at every level. His “board” system, prevents the ripple effect of any change in the structure of the car. One platform, multiple usages: last-mile delivery truck, electric shuttle hailing, light commercial vehicle; etc. “If needed, we can put on our platform either the modern equivalent of a London cab or an all-terrain car”, says Barel.
One of REE’s shareholders is Mitsubishi Auto Lease, the $1.4 billion-revenue leasing arm of the Japanese conglomerate. It constitutes a huge potential market for REE, with fleets of standardized vehicles that will be leased to third-party fleet operators or to customers.
Barel claims to have orders totaling “hundreds of thousands of vehicles”. Despite having a few versions of its board already available, most of the hardware will be customized to fit the needs of the fleets managed by the clients.
The company also intends to work with large OEMs by building “integration centers” at their doorstep, says the CEO. Without being specific, Daniel Barel said he expects REE to spread in the United States, Germany, and Japan (in addition to India, with the aforementioned Mahindra deal). Right now, the company is moderately funded ($160 million), given its ambition and potential market size. Its competitors, who are less adventurous tech-wise, have collected more funding. Canoo, launched in 2017, has raised $300 million and Rivian, the behemoth, a hefty $5.6 billion.
Without any doubt, the corner approach is the ultimate design for electric vehicles: managing power, braking, steering, suspensions or anti-skating for each wheel is the way forward ensures better performance — that’s REE’s main bet for the future. — FF
In episode 7, we will talk about Car-as-a-Service (CaaS) in which the notion of ownership will be replaced by various forms of leasing, renting, and sharing. Send us remarks and suggestions at email@example.com