Carmakers are a weird bunch. On one hand, they’re willing to give their designers free rein and millions of dollars to explore distant-future concepts, but then their production vehicles toe a narrow, unadventurous design line. Attending the Paris Motor Show this week, I see this dichotomy everywhere around me. Renault’s EZ-Ultimo self-driving limo is parked a few feet away from a fleet of anonymous-looking SUVs. Audi’s attention-grabbing PB18 E-tron supercar is flanked by uniformly forgettable autos. And Peugeot’s gorgeous e-Legend Concept is a drop of design flair and aggression amid a sea of visual predictability. I came to Paris looking for the future of electric car design, but all I’ve been able to find are a few lovely fantasies and a lot of staid continuity.
What’s missing from the world of car design today is any sort of middle ground. You’re either limited to futzing around with headlights and other inconsequential cosmetics or you get a totally blank slate with no design constraints at all. Anyone can sketch out a romantic, enticing, opulent, fantastic — and unrealistic — concept for many years into the future. But where are the risky, opinionated, near-future designs that embrace the full range of possibilities that electric cars open up?
My view from the Paris show floor is that carmakers are, at their core, extremely conservative. They engage in the bombast of cutting-edge innovation, and they build physical representations of it, but that’s all an extravagant form of marketing. In their pursuit of hype and attention, car companies will often debut their new cars in a striking, provocative red, only to go on to build the majority of those cars in gray, white, and black because those are overwhelmingly the most popular colors that people end up buying. We share in a collective delusion about just how novel, wild, or unprecedented we want our vehicles to be, and car companies have decided to nurse it along so long as it stimulates their sales.