Cadillac Lyriq

Electric vehicles are the biggest thing to hit the car industry since Harley Earl introduced the concept of car design in the first place. General Motors head of design Michael Simcoe explains how the company is meeting the challenge 

There are big changes afoot in the auto industry. The internal combustion engine – dominant since the days of the Model T – is facing its first credible challenger with a wave of electric vehicles on the horizon.  If proof were needed of this power shift, you only need glance at the portfolios of established carmakers. Almost all have an electric vehicle in the line-up, and some are pledging a commitment to an all-electric future. Newcomers to the market start with electric as a baseline. 

“This is the first truly major change that the industry is having to embrace,” says head of design at GM, Michael Simcoe. “Over the last hundred years, design has been influenced by manufacturing and materials, and I suppose, themes and practices around the world. This, however, is the first major change that affects all of us, all at once.”

The impact on the industry is seismic. A designer by way of engineering, Simcoe likens EVs significance as fundamental as when Harley Earl first introduced the idea of design to the industry. The comparison has a pleasing symmetry – Simcoe occupies the same role as was created for Earl back in 1927. 

The move away from combustion engines has opened up a new landscape that designers need to shape – proportions, aerodynamics, interiors, safety and connectivity.

At a macro level, it means a pivot for long standing brands to realign design studios towards EV. General Motors exemplifies that change, as the company will introduce 22 new electric vehicles by 2023 for all four nameplates: Cadillac, Chevrolet, Buick and GMC. The recalibration means that three quarters of the work GM is doing across the brand studios is related to EV. 

These vehicles are based a common EV architecture called Ultium, but range in execution from full-size pickups to mid-height crossovers to low-roof performance cars.  

According to Simcoe, this ability to diversify the portfolio separates GM from other companies developing EVs. “We have a dedicated battery system of motors, controllers and the batteries themselves that reflect the breadth of both the brands and the type of vehicles that GM offers,” he says. “The cell architecture, the modules, the battery packs, the motors and the controllers, were very deliberately designed to allow us to create a flexible core.”

"This is the first really major change that the industry is having to embrace, which affects all of us at once"

That flexible core is represented by a triumvirate of contrasting vehicles: The Cadillac LYRIQ is a mid-height crossover based on a mid-sized battery pack; the HUMMER EV is a full-size pickup based on a double-layer full-size truck battery; and the upcoming Cadillac Celestiq is a low-profile, luxury sedan based on a performance battery pack. 

According to Simcoe, Cadillac, with its boundary-pushing reputation, is the tip of the spear: “The change to EV allows us to deliver both a very dramatic design statement based around the technology and what EV delivers architecturally, but also on a promise. We have made a promise for some time to do something different and deliver Cadillac as people saw it in the past – as a brand that leads with technology and leads change in the industry.” 

Simcoe points out this will not signal a return to yesterday’s aesthetics (no matter how tempting it may be to mine the archive) but a chance to establish a new direction for the brand. If you were looking for an concrete example of how this new direction manifests itself in the new Cadillac, you need look no further than the grille, which has morphed from a traditional shield that helps cool the engine to what Simcoe refers to as an ‘integrated surface’.

“It hides an array of sensors and technologies to enable hands-free driving and active safety features in the front end of the vehicle,” Simcoe says. “That changes what the grill represents to a customer. It still represents Cadillac, but it also represents the technology that has enabled the product as well.” 

The new EV portfolio offers a similar opportunity to redefine the Hummer name. The original hardly needs an introduction. An imposing chunk of military hardware in civilian garb, it was equally revered for its off-road prowess and vilified for it’s camel-like thirst and compromised packaging. That Hummer’s return is led by EV is an irony that Simcoe clearly enjoys. The designer believes this electrified edition will return it to cult status – delivering all of the performance without the added guilt that came with the old model. “It is rugged, powerful, and capable. But the new GMC Hummer EV is also comfortable, full of technology with a delightful customer interface, and zero emissions.”

"The visceral appeal that vehicles deliver is just as strong if not stronger. People are always going to appreciate beautiful things"

Despite all of the changes EVs and new technologies are bringing to automotive design, Simcoe sees the fundamental mission is unchanged from that set out by Harley Earl nearly 100 years ago: “First and foremost, design must establish an emotional connection with the customer. Propulsion will change. New technologies will be introduced. Connectivity will change how we interact with automobiles. But the emotional pull and the visceral appeal that vehicles deliver is just as strong if not stronger. People are always going to appreciate beautifully designed vehicles.”

Professional Profile:
Name: Brian Smith
Role: Director of design, Cadillac exteriors
Nationality: American
Location: Warren, Michigan, USA
Education: University of Cincinnati, USA 

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