December 17, 2019

If an EV doesn’t need a conventional engine and transmission, then why does every electric car on the market pretty much look like a gas-powered vehicle? That’s the question being asked by Canoo, the EV company actively re-thinking vehicle design for a new age of shared and connected mobility. We spoke with Canoo’s powertrain chief, who told us that the Canoo doesn’t use a battery enclosure.

Co-founder Phil Weicker is Canoo’s head of powertrain and electronics. He previously had top battery-engineering roles at Faraday Future and Coda. This gives him the experience to re-think assumptions:

The internal combustion engine imposed a lot of constraints on the design of the vehicle. When you remove those constraints, you can either fit into what people are used to – or you can explore what could be done differently in the future. We chose to explore.

Weicker explained that Canoo’s skateboard design, which will be used on multiple vehicle platforms, does not have a separate battery enclosure. “The battery is packaged directly inside the skateboard. This allows us to provide a higher level of functional integration,” he said. “And it saves weight and money.”

Also, he said Canoo is the first EV to use a transverse leaf-spring suspension – thereby eliminating that shock towers that typically intrude into the cabin and compromise interior packaging.

Canoo EV

When you combine these design innovations with the first steering system that operates entirely by wire – zero mechanical linkages – it creates an unprecedented degree of flexibility for cabin design. You can be creative about ultra-safe crashworthiness while providing a spacious interior on a small footprint.

When I sat inside the Canoo, its cabin felt like a modern take on a spacious, old-school surfer van. But the platform is the size of a Toyota Prius.

Weicker said, “It’s nice to be working on an EV that looks like an EV.

With this statement, he’s expressing a central tenant of EV design, but that has not yet been fully explored. The packaging of the powertrain can be low and minimal, thereby allowing a full reconsideration of the cabin. After Canoo’s first vehicle, which looks like a lounge on wheels, the company is likely to introduce vehicles purpose-built for ride-sharing and deliveries.

Canoo EV powertrain

Weicker talked about what led Canoo to drop a traditional battery enclosure.

I call this problem the ‘box in a box in a box problem.’ You put the battery cell in a module, and you put the module in a pack, and you put the pack in the vehicle.

Every one of these steps adds mass and cost while taking away energy density. Customers are concerned about usable energy, which translates to range. Anything that we can do to maintain that range while minimizing additional layers of components is a direct benefit to the customer.

He said the design maintains the ability to service the battery and ensure safety.

As the company approaches its second anniversary, it’s putting more Beta prototypes into road testing. The company is on target to deliver 250 miles of driving range from an 80-kWh battery pack.

Other testing is focusing on reducing noise, vibration, and harshness to ensure a quiet cabin. Canoo is not designed as a high-performance sports machine.

“We’re staying out of the zero-to-60 wars that other electric vehicle companies are focusing on,” said Weicker. He explained that the goal is to build a very compact and affordable package, that’s nonetheless “exciting do drive.”

Canoo electric-vehicle interior

That sounds like a claim that nearly any EV-make could make. But where Canoo breaks new ground is in the combined re-imagining of a 21st-century vehicle’s use case – including shared uses and subscriptions – and how the skateboard design provides the freedom to design the cabin to serve those cases.

I’m excited about building a car that there’s no way you could build with an internal combustion engine architecture. Almost every vehicle available from OEMs now is built for personal driving or commuting. We’re more excited to play with unexplored use cases that we think are going to become more important.

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