Why don’t electric cars look like the future?

Electric cars were supposed to be the future – or at least look like it. So now they’re here, why do they still look like ordinary petrol and diesel cars and not dazzling props from a science fiction film?

Before they hit the market and became relatively mainstream, many imagined (or at least, hoped) that electric cars would resemble the Light Runner from Tron: Legacy. After all, without the need for an internal combustion engine, an exhaust system, and a fuel tank, electric car designers should have the creative freedom to rip up the rulebook and create some truly eye-catching vehicles.

But this hasn’t really happened. Park a Renault Zoe next to a Renault Clio, for example, and compare the two. While there are subtle differences and styling cues that suggest the Zoe is electric and the Clio isn’t, the overall body form is strikingly similar. In fact, the Zoe is assembled on the same production line as the Clio and Nissan Micra.

So what’s going on?

One explanation could be economic; the initial cost outlay of using the Clio’s existing platform for the Zoe is far lower than developing a completely new design.

But this absence of a radical departure in the design and styling of electric cars could also be market-led, responding to customer expectations and perceptions. A new car is a significant investment and so consumers are typically conservative when choosing one. Manufacturers typically invest billions of pounds developing new models and they want to be sure that they will sell.

But there are also technical reasons for the lack of divergence between petrol and electric vehicles. Automotive companies have spent decades perfecting the existing form of the car so that models are optimally aerodynamic, ergonomic and safe. To depart too radically from tried and tested designs would be a major commitment with expensive consequences in some or all of these areas.

Consider aerodynamics. Without the need for an engine, theoretically you could do away with the bonnet and the “nose” of the car – think the classic electric milk floats that dutifully graced housing estates between the 1960s and the 1990s, when home milk deliveries fell out of fashion.