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Say it with luminescence: How electrics are revolutionizing car design

This car’s design looks simple and straightforward at first, but look what happens when you switch on: it can glow in multicolour.

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Gorden Wagener, head of design at Daimler, wowed an audience in Paris when he powered up a design study for a future Mercedes EQ electric car.

Instead of a chrome grille in front of an internal combustion engine, all you could see at first was a black inset across the car’s nose.

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When the car powers up, the Black Panel, as it is known, shimmers with blue horizontal lines that mimic the old grille design. A white Mercedes star becomes visible at the centre, where the badge would usually be. Starting the car sets off a miniature light show.

The LED headlights are part of the Black Panel, which is moulded from tough automotive plastics.

Mercedes’s new grille design is part of a clear trend that could radically change the appearance of cars. If a car no longer burns petrol or diesel fuel, it can be reshaped in new and unexpected ways.

At the recent Paris Motor Show, creative designers were demonstrating with their concept cars how to play with light and colours.

Among the most striking was the Ssangyong LIV-2 SUV with an illuminated grille and the Renault Trezor, with tail-lights consisting of a dozen optical fibres that can be individually illuminated by red lasers and rotated to modify their intensity.

These new designs are making use of the creative leeway provided by purely electric vehicles, and for two reasons in particular.

First, it is finally possible to light up the whole front, since there is no longer a motor that requires air for cooling.

"The electric drive creates much greater freedom for designers," enthuses VW’s design director Klaus Bischoff.

Second, electric vehicles must somehow differentiate themselves from their combustion-engine predecessors, so that they can be recognized as the harbingers of a new era and, as the Cologne-based design critic Paolo Tuminelli says, look as cool as a smartphone next to an old mobile phone with a keypad.

Along with the Mercedes EQ, the VW I.D. shows just how far this trend can lead.

The I.D.’s headlights look for all the world like a pair of eyes when the car starts driving, shining into curves when turning.

They change their look with changes in speed, explains a VW spokesperson.

Once VW’s concept car becomes an autonomous driving vehicle, envisaged for 2025, blue diodes will switch on along the front and rear aprons, along the car’s flanks and around the roof’s extended laser scanners to indicate the use of the autopilot system.

When the I.D. is shut down again, it will say a friendly "goodbye" before it closes its eyes and the lights go out.

The fact that designers enjoy playing with light is not just a matter of proclaiming the arrival of electric drive or the desire to distinguish their new models from conventional combustion, says Tumminelli.

Lighting is especially important with regard to autonomous driving, explains the expert, less so in terms of visibility for the driver – since the use of sensors means headlights are no longer needed – but rather in terms of the car being seen.

Direct communication between the car and the other road users is the goal in this scenario.

"Light then becomes language," emphasizes Mercedes’s future studies and ideation director Alexander Mankowsky.

As such, autonomous prototypes like the Mercedes F 015 or the VW I.D. don’t just signal their lack of a driver by special lighting.

They also use the diodes to create an actual dialogue with passers-by.

The VW prototype, for example, can literally look at people on a sidewalk and give them an indication that the electronics have "seen" them, explains a member of the development team.

The Mercedes F 015 even projects a zebra crossing onto the road to signal a "safe walk," Mankowsky explains.

As big as the freedoms provided by an electric car are, even Renault’s head of design Laurens van den Acker admits that lighting design teams are approaching some practical limits – even when he himself has implemented quite playful ideas with the Renault Trezor’s front and rear lighting.

At motor shows, where cars are constantly connected to power, this may not be a problem, says van den Acker.

"But if we were to stage the entire illumination on the street, the battery would soon be drained. The driving range will plummet." (DPA)

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