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Will self-driving tech make cars prettier? Renault says yes

Renault's design boss tells TG ‘autonomous cars will be more beautiful’

Published: 09 Mar 2017

Before Renault’s outrageous twin-motored Zoe e-Sport whirred out onto the Geneva motor show stand, grabbed a quick one-on-one with the electric hot hatch concept and its designer, Renault’s Laurens van der Acker. He’s pretty pleased with the 460bhp skunkworks project…

“I’d say this is a designer’s wet dream, to create this. You take a Zoe, then you pump it full of steroids, put two electric engines in it, and it becomes not only the best power-to-weight electric car in the world, but also faster than a Formula E racecar. That’s a pretty crazy brief, y’know?”

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The Zoe e-Sport isn’t designed to be raced in a zero-emission Clio Cup sort of series, nor sold to the public. We asked Laurens if having no regulations to worry about actually makes his job harder, because there’s nothing to stop him and his team going way, way over the top…

“Well, the car does respect FIA rules – there’s carbon fibre reinforcement of the chassis, you could take it on a track, and it’s much more aerodynamic [than a Zoe], because we stretched the roofline, and gave the body sharper edges to really cut off the airflow. But really, the car is all about being wider, more masculine, and light. It’s only 1450kg, and that’s including 450kg of batteries.”

“I think this is the most exciting time ever to be a car designer”, Laurens says. “There was a time when people said sports cars are dead because they’re irresponsible and polluting, but now there’s a new way of having all the fun and none of the guilt, with electric powertrains. And on top of that, it gives us architectural freedom. You can put e-motors in all the wheels, so the handling gets better.”

“I think the only drawback at the moment is weight. EVs are really good for drag races, and they match a combustion car in a straight line – it takes no skill, even I could sit in this and beat a Ferrari in a straight line – but the key challenge is how to make EVs fun to drive."

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What about the pure design of cars, and how EV packaging changes the looks?

“Essentially, an electric motor is 60 per cent the size of a combustion engine, so it’s genetically smaller. The battery pack can be cut up and divided, so the first thing we want to do is free up more space inside the car. Secondly, we’ll compact the exterior to make the car more aerodynamic. Once you have the batteries in the floor, we’ll give you more room to breathe. And once we go autonomous, people will want to sit back and relax. Interior-wise, this revolution will be huge.”

“Also, these days we are filling the cars with heavy safety equipment in case someone crazy crashes into you or you fall asleep. But if you have a more intelligent car that protects you, we can maybe take airbags out, do thinner pillars, and create more space. I could take out hundreds of kilos in crash structure. Right now, it’s like we’re walking around with a parachute on our backs just in case we fall out of a plane.”

So, we ask Laurens finally: will autonomous technology mean you can design more beautiful cars? “Yes”, he replies. Bet you didn’t expect that from the self-driving revolution…

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