Innovation is happening in the automotive industry again, and the next frontier should be exterior fabrics.
Traditional automakers have a problem. Start ups like Tesla, Rivian, and Lucid are innovating with a sense of urgency as if their lives depended on it, because they do. These electric-only automakers see a future where they're the Big Three, not GM, Ford, and Chrysler (err, Stellantis).
That reality could come to pass if EV ownership continues gaining momentum in the marketplace and automakers who've ruled the sales charts forever don't find a way to keep up with the bleeding edge products these start ups are building.
I have an idea to help them, and while it may sound crazy, I think it's bold enough to make a huge difference for whichever automaker adopts it first.
You're laughing, I can hear it, but give me a chance to lay out my thinking.
In the world of EVs, range is king. Most Teslas offer an EPA-rated range over 300 miles, and the ones that don't are least popular with buyers. Meanwhile, most traditional automakers that sell an EV these days offer ranges of 250 miles or fewer. A couple can go farther, including one version of the Ford Mustang Mach-E that's officially rated for 300 miles, but that's it for now.
So far, the only way traditional automakers can come close to a Tesla's range is by using a bigger battery pack than Tesla does. Rather than focusing on increasing their cars' efficiency, they give them bigger, heavier, and more costly battery packs than the equivalent Tesla. It helps close the range gap, but it doesn't get these automakers all the way there.
The Volkswagen ID.4, for instance, has an 82 kWh battery pack and an EPA range rating of 250 miles. The Tesla Model Y, meanwhile, has a 75 kWh battery pack and is EPA-rated to go 326 miles. The Model Y even has all-wheel drive compared to the ID.4 powering just its rear wheels. How does the Model Y do it? It's more efficient.
Traditional automakers need to start focusing on the efficiency of their EVs as a whole if they hope to catch Tesla and other EV startups in this range race. There are dozens if not hundreds of areas in an EV where more efficiency can be realized, and weight is one of the most important. This is where replacing sheetmetal with fabric on a vehicle's exterior could be a game changer.
Look To The Past
This idea isn't new. Historians among you will recall that planes used to be skinned entirely in fabric. The dog fights of World War I were fought with fabric-wrapped bi-plane aircraft. These structures were light but rigid enough to give the day's meagerly powered planes the edge over physics.
I'm not saying we should build cars out of balsa wood and cotton, but the idea is still sound. Imagine an electric vehicle with a passenger cell built out of metal and glass that's air- and water-tight. Imagine crumple zones in the front and rear made of metal for crash-worthiness. Now imagine some kind of fabric pulled taughtly over a wire frame to form the hood, fenders, doors, and trunk. What you're imagining begs the question: why do our cars carry so much extra weight in metal body panels that don't support any structure or contribute to crashworthiness very much?
Fabric exteriors wouldn't just reduce an EV's weight by hundreds of pounds. They could also reduce both the cost of materials and manufacturing, thereby either lowering the EV's price for consumers or increasing profit for the automaker (or both!). Fabrics with special coatings might cost significantly less than steel and aluminum, and wouldn't require further complicated and expensive steps like stamping, paint booths, or rustproofing.
And think of what you as an owner might be able to do with a fabric-covered car. Bored with your car's color? Buy new fabric instead of having it repainted. Your car's dirty? You'll clean it in the clothes washer with your sheets and hang it up to dry. It would be a paradigm shift in how we choose, buy, repair, and maintain our vehicle exteriors.
A key to making fabric exteriors work is the type of fabric used. I'm not a materials expert, but I asked someone who is. Sandy Munro of Munro & Associates, Inc. has become a YouTube sensation for disassembling cars down to their last nut and bolt and analyzing their engineering. His teardown videos of Teslas have millions of views combined, and his one-on-one interview with Elon Musk has millions of itself by itself. His reply to me: "Kevlar fabric." That certainly sounds cooler than cotton, right?
Valuing Innovation Again
Munro and I discovered we were on the same wavelength during a long call recently. In his words, "the next generation of vehicles is going to be woven," with "knitting" replacing "stamping" in assembly plants. If only traditional automakers were brave enough to do it.
Munro explained that today's large automakers are set up in a way that devalues innovation from their engineers. Rather than innovate, most engineers follow a career path that sees them off to MBA school so they can become managers, at which point they become risk averse and shift allegiances to the bottom line. The engineers that refuse to take that path end up becoming the accelerator pedal guy or the lady that does door handles.
In fact, a lot of the engineering work that goes into today's cars is no longer performed by the automaker itself, but rather its suppliers. Automakers have outsourced an incredible amount of engineering to suppliers that used to be done in-house, and suppliers seem even less interested in innovation than engineers with MBAs. A supplier's goal is to develop products for automakers that hardly ever change and can be sold to multiple customers with as few changes as possible, thus increasing profit.
To date, in-house engineering has been one of Tesla's key advantages, and I suspect will be of any EV start up that survives the next few years. One need look no further than Tesla's Octovalve, mega castings, or neural network that's constantly improving the company's Autopilot driver assist system. These innovations are all key components of an equation that has kept Tesla ahead of its much larger rivals so far.
What Would It Even Look Like?
We already have an idea of what fabric-covered cars might look like thanks to a few that have already been built. The most recent one is the BMW GINA concept that debuted in 2008, and in my opinion, it's the best. The GINA is a gorgeous two-seat convertible sports car that was born out of the Chris Bangle era of BMW design and took seven years to develop.
Gallery: BMC GINA Concept
Not only did Bangle and his team prove a fabric-covered car design could look amazing, but they showed off some unique opportunities with this technology. The car's exterior consists of just four panels of fabric, and underneath the skin are electric and hydraulic actuators that pull the fabric in different ways. The headlights, for instance, are uncovered when motors pull the fabric up like an eyelid lifting. There's no hood that opens on a hinge, but rather a slit down the middle of the front end that can be stretched apart for access. At speed, a spoiler "grows" out of the rear end for stability. It's ingenious, as you'll see this in this video with quite the uplifting soundtrack.
The GINA offers so much innovation that any automaker could copy its principles and have a ground-breaking product to sell. As for the skin, it's a polyurethane-coated Spandex that BMW claims resists high and low temperatures, doesn't swell or shrink, and isn't compromised by repeated movement. So at least one automaker has been working on the material science for exterior fabrics.
There were more fabric-bodies cars, particularly from earlier in motoring history. The Weymann. The Velorex. These Austins from the '20s. But it never caught on. That doesn't, however, mean it couldn't make a comeback as a better exterior solution for modern day electric vehicles.
It's Not Just About Efficiency
I've been harping this whole time about the benefits of efficiency and innovation, but there's another reason I think fabric-bodied exteriors are worth developing: uniqueness. As we see the EV market expand with new competitors, one thing that strikes me is how normal they all are. The electric revolution is supposed to be an opportunity to reinvent what an automobile can be, from the way it looks to the way it drives to the way it's built, and more. But what we're getting are the same cars we've been buying for decades that happen to be powered by electricity.
A fabric-bodied electric vehicle that offered amazing range thanks to an automaker's wholistic approach to efficiency, and cost less due to the manufacturing and materials savings, would be unlike anything else on the market. It would be captivating on its own, not requiring tens of millions of dollars of marketing money to convince us. It could be the Tesla-killer we've heard about so often but are still waiting to meet. That is, unless Tesla does it first. Can you imagine the Cybertruck switching from an increasingly expensive steel exoskeleton to kevlar fabric wrapped around a frame? I can.