Hyundai’s Chief Designer: EVs Shouldn’t Reek of Aerodynamics


Consider his new term for when a car screams that it’s electric: “Aero Affected.”

Hyundai last year said it will introduce 14 electric cars by 2025. Chris Chapman, senior chief designer at the Hyundai Design Center in Irvine, Calif., has put a lot of thought into how those vehicles will look and feel. We sat down with Chapman last week during a break in our first drive of the Hyundai Kona Electric and the newly designed Nexo fuel-cell car (shown above).

What first grabbed our attention was his use of a term that we hadn’t heard before: Aero Affected. We all know (and are annoyed by) people who are affected. Chapman said the same thing occurs when EVs try too hard to show how they easily slip through the air.

Prior to joining Hyundai as senior chief designer in 2012, Chapman was with the BMW Group at DesignworksUSA. He designed the exterior of the X5 Sport Activity Vehicle – and guided design for the X3 and Z4. Mr. Chapman is also credited with the first-generation BMW 1 Series hatchback.

Given Chapman’s astute observations about EVs, we thought you’d enjoy an edited version of our conversation, in which he captured the feeling of driving an electric car.

InsideEVs: Do you consider the vehicle’s powertrain when you design a car?

Chris Chapman: Not really. The only thing that EVs bring to the equation is the reduction of the things you’re accustomed to with internal combustion engines. You get into an electric car, hit the power button, and nothing really happens. It might light up and say, “I’m ready.” But you don’t have the visceral engagement of an engine starting up.

When you accelerate, there’s no gearing. It’s connected to the bottom of your foot, so you go instantaneously as fast or as slow as you want according to your foot position. It’s the reduction of classic things associated with ICE. It makes an ICE vehicle feel old and outdated.

When you charge the car, you are at home at night. Every morning you wake up with a full charge. But when you have an ICE car, on Monday or Tuesday you’re fine, but maybe by Wednesday you’re down to a quarter of a tank. Even though you could get to work with no hassle, it’s weighing on your mind all day. I have to go fill up before I come home. It’s these small subtle things associated with ICE that are eliminated.

You remove a lot of the hassle of getting from point A to point B. And maybe you actually feel a little energized and rejuvenated.

What are the design implications?

When you’re developing any type of product, there are several groups interacting with one another. For example, the design department is interacting with aerodynamic engineers. For an EV, the aero guys might sit at the head of the table and talk about the targets they need to hit. They are adamant about it because it’s an electric car. But desirable vehicles strike a compromise between design and aerodynamics. One is not more important than the other. You have to draw a line when aero is impacting how the car is being perceived from an aesthetic point of view. You might have to find another way to get a couple of counts down.

Nissan abandoned the generation Leaf’s polarizing aero design.

It becomes graffiti that pollutes the visual landscape.

You’re saying that you can reduce the drag of coefficient without the car looking like a Prius or how the first-generation Leaf used bulging headlights to move the air.

It’s trying too hard to make it look different. You supersede likeability. You’re saying this car must look different than anything on the road. Period. It becomes graffiti that pollutes the visual landscape. And I would argue that it’s not relevant to it being an EV.

Hyundai is planning a lot of electric vehicles so you must be thinking about your future design language for EVs.

When you start driving these vehicles, there is an effortlessness and a serenity. There’s a quiet associated with it. It’s subtle stuff. We’re at the tip of an iceberg and the more people that experience these cars, it will take away the stigma. A year or two ago, everybody was talking about range anxiety. That’s disappearing.

Chapman illustrated the concept of “hidden tech” through phone cases. The Kona EV simplifies the gas version.

Are you saying that the interior and the cockpit will literally have fewer elements?

Yes. Hidden tech is an emerging concept in design and product development. When you look at a smartphone from the outside, you notice that it’s pretty simple. There are only about three buttons. But the homework and work to make it that simple are incredibly complex and time-consuming. The classic definition of high-tech no longer exists.

We’re entering a high-tech age where all cars…

They are all going to be Electric. By 2025, the majority of all the car companies’ offerings worldwide are going to be electric.

What does that mean for car design?

For the exterior, it means something a little bit more aerodynamic. But hopefully not what I call aerodynamic affected. An affectation.

You seem to be as focused on user experience as visual design.

Yes. Again, it’s about quality time. Let’s bring the stress level down and get back to basic human interactions that we all crave, like conversation and thinking.

This is very abstract. I think what people respond to is when a manufacturer messed up with its design so they can say, “That’s so ugly.” Or “That’s hot.” You can’t get around that, right?

People are smart enough to see something on the road and recognize whether or not the company was overreaching.

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75 Comments on "Hyundai’s Chief Designer: EVs Shouldn’t Reek of Aerodynamics"

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“When an EV tries too hard to look aerodynamic, it becomes visual pollution, so says Hyundai”
Can I get an AMEN!

Yeah, the EV1 was an impressive bit of kit and its CdA was impressive but it was not a beautiful car, to put it lightly. The Prius plays in the same ballpark, nice aero, but not attractive.

Front wind catchers aren’t that sexy though, are they?

Amen. So what is the goal of the Toyota designs?

Toyota’s Design Goal is, To Suck , Which BTW., Has Been A Total Success….

Is 4th Gen Prius a total success? Maybe in Japan, but certainly its sales in the US is less than total success.

Please re-read his post carefully to spot irony 🙂

I think he means – It Sucks that Toyota ‘Blows!’ 🙂

I think he was speaking of the entire Toyota lineup, ICE included.

I’m pretty sure Toyota’s designs are an inside joke. Toyota knows there is a group of people that are going to buy their cars no matter what. They will only possibly cross shop with Honda, so as long as Honda is in on the joke it’s all good. Basically, Toyota’s designers are having fun finding out just what crap people will ride around in. They’re daring people not to buy a Toyota every year with even more bizarre designs and people still cave and buy it anyways. All the while the Toyota (and Honda) designers snicker and giggle when they see their “creations” rolling down the street with people in them.

It’s all in good fun!

Dav8or. I agree, my son bought one of the few daring cars that escaped Toyota’s oppressive design review board – an FJ Cruiser, which we love. They dared to be different. Now if I could find a 2000GT that wasn’t seven figures …

Pollution? I find Tesla’s S,X,3 all o be aerodynamic and “a breath of fresh air.” Pollution to me is the stagnate way designers perpetuate the ICE Age!

That’s one mans opinion.
Maybe he can’t do it.

The Kona sure looks better than the Bolt.

Is that even a contest?

Not really, the Kona is just a bland CUV style that hundreds of other models have.

The Kona and Niro look big and bulky and appeal to SUV buyers. The Bolt is much more minimalistic and appeals to a different mindset. Maximizing interior room with minimal footprint is beauty in it’s own right.

The Niro is quite a bit (8″) longer than the Kona and the Bolt.

Well, the Kona might looks like a bona fide “grown up” SUV from 300 ft. away, but upon closer inspection it’s as short as the Bolt and a couple of inches lower than it. Also, because of Kona’s Jimmy Durante-grade nose the cab is at least 4″ shorter (in my measurements).

The Bolt, it seems to be, reflects the microvan sensibilities.

Aerodynamics has a direct influence on the cost of the vehicle for an EV. Less efficient means lower range, to compensate a larger battery, more cost. If your vehicle is 20% less efficient than competitor it means 20% larger battery or worse range. Look at Audi ETron, Jaguar IPace, EQC, etc. All about 200 mile EPA range, but larger batteries than Tesla, which will eat into their bottom line.

We buy vehicles to use them. I DON’T need to drive 200 miles. I DO need the rear hatch, especially when I’m taking a trip with a dog. I’m happy to trade off hyper-efficiency to get a product that actually fits my needs. So, a sedan with extremely raked roofs that is not practical and looks weird at the same time…I’ll pass.

I agree on the hatch for the dog. But why is it one or the other? Look at the 2010 Prius. Incredibly efficient AND incredibly practical with a large usable back area. I know a lot of people don’t like the looks of the Prius, but I love its simplicity. And Tesla must like it a bit as the Model X just looks like a Prius on steroids. The M3 should have been a hatchback but wasn’t for various reasons having nothing to do with aerodynamics.

With a dog, or with a couple of folding bikes, or with a coffee table … that’s one of the reasons why the driving public favors taller vehicles.

And not Sedans. 🙂

You’re referring to the Tesla Model 3, I take it? There was no reason it couldn’t have been a hatchback, like the Model S is. Dealbreaker for me.

I had an early model 3 reservation slot that I cancelled after the reveal when it became clear that the model 3 would be the first Tesla without a hatch. You see dozens of videos where they are trying to show how big the trunk is or how much you can carry in it. You never have to do that with a model S because its functional design is apparent when looking at the car even from a distance. The 3 on the other hand needs to try and convince you about something when you already know the answer is no.

May I introduce you to a BMW i3?

Lol. That’s what I drive now. I’ll likely renew my lease next year.

Actually, a properly designed hatchback doesn’t give up a whole lot aerodynamically to a sedan with a similar frontal area and comparable passenger accommodation. But EVs have to be careful. Drag is expressed as noise, which can be very annoying in a quiet vehicle.

The range number doesn’t really matter, pretend a person is shopping for a 250 mile EV. If you are a company trying to sell that 250 mile EV and it costs $5,000 more because of aerodynamics for the same range as your competitor it will eat into your bottom line. It doesn’t matter if you are looking at 150 mile range or 1000 mile range this holds true.

I think for this reason you will naturally see more aerodynamic cars pick up the lead here unless batteries get so cheap that adding 20% doesn’t change your costs much.

The point here is if you are shopping for a 150 mile EV hatch, and an aerodynamic design costs $3000 less for identical features, are you willing to pay that much more for style? Probably not, so it will eat into car makers bottom line.

You have it backwards. People really don’t care about the difference between 150 and 300 as much as they did during the days of the 80 mile rides. So, all they are looking at is the inability to use the car productively. The price points seem to be the same – it is just the range that changes.

Looks of the car is also big selling point, and thus affects price

I agree, and I’ll also add that achieving the same range with a larger battery (vs. with better juice economy) means that your charging time is going to be longer, which may be OK when you charge on L2 overnight, but not when you are on a road trip pay by the minute at a L3 charger.

Don’t use pay by the minute chargers then… Use ones that charge per kW.
I hate ones that also charge a hefty connection fee. WTF???

Also the time you spend at the charger counts; let’s say if the DCFC pumps 20 kW over 30 minutes (which seems to be a typical fast charger session), it’s 80 or more miles in a Bolt or maybe only 50 miles in an EV that doesn’t spend its electrons wisely.

They are not so common as to have a choice the next block over, and some states do not permit selling by kWh.

there’s aero and then there’s egregious aero, trying to look aero.

somehow the 2018 Leaf has a better CoD (.28 vs .29) than the 2011 (from what I’ve read the big headlight bulges were to direct airflow away from the windows to reduce cabin noise).

The I-Pace is a great example of the right balance between beauty and functionality.

And a bad efficiency. As batteries cost loads of money and range is far from ideal, beauty becomes a very expensive business.

“Beauty becomes an expensive business”

Always has been.

He just didn’t want to eliminate the grill.

Kona has no grill…

wtf. lol

I care less about how EV’s look than how they function. Form should follow function. With that said, it is entirely possible to make cars that are both aerodynamic and look good at the same time.

What I think is worse is making an EV look weird for absolutely zero aerodynamic advantage at all!! Making EV’s weird for no functional reason is just silly. That’s more of a sin in my eyes than making aerodynamics the number 1 priority. Aerodynamics should have priority over chasing whatever design features is fashionable at the car show runways each spring.

What do you mean by function Nix? What functions well for you may not for others. To some, function means max range or efficiency, to others rear seat ergonomics and cargo space are an imporrant part of function. Boxy and higher works better for the latter. Also when seats are really low to the ground it can be harder for helping really old or young passengers

Personally I would give up some range to have better passenger comfort and cargo space. Otherwuse I would probably have kept my Volt or have a model 3 by now. Both are neat cars but are aero affected.

Both high energy efficiency (which requires low drag) and cargo space/ access are functions. All engineering designs for complex things (and often even simple things) are compromises.

For EVs, the function of low drag demands a curved roofline. For cars with a rear cargo hatch, such as hatchbacks, CUVs and SUVs, the function of cargo access demands a flat roofline. Obviously both functions cannot prevail, but either can prevail in a “function over form” design.

Mr Hyundai is arguing for form over function. I’m with Nix; it should be function over form, or rather form following function. But obviously not everyone agrees, since there are an awful lot of car designs seen on the roads that fairly scream “Form over function!”

I like this guy. Cars need character not washed out lines just to be slippery.

Cars Need Both , Character & The Right Lines to Be Slippery . Talented Designers Can Achieve Both ..

“It becomes graffiti that pollutes the visual landscape.”

LOL. Best quote of the article.

Current generation Prius and Clarity come to mind.

Visual pollution as opposed to the actual pollution they have been selling for decades!

Aerodynamic ICE still pollutes more than an less aerodynamic EVs.

So, they aren’t always mutually exclusive.

As much as I like Toyota, I agree about the new Prius … Clarity is acquired taste – it’s a little weird, but there are no explicitly ugly parts.

The current Prius Prime hits both the terrible looks and the lack of practicality. The pretty much ruined the functionality of the hatch with the battery placement. Couldn’t get my bike or my dog back there.

Tesla Model S proves that you can have both, aero and good looks.

Model X is a step backward in my opinion, trading aero for looks.

I am glad that the designer is at least aware of the trade off and advantage of EVs.

The 3 falls somewhere between. It will be very interesting to see what Tesla does with the Y and the Pick Up. They should give up more aero, to appeal to the masses of people that want something more traditionally rugged looking.

Given the wild, runaway success of the shark-snouted Model 3, it’s pretty clear that Tesla is very successful with its form following function designs, contrary to what Mr. Hyundai is saying here. Anyone expecting Tesla to abandon that approach with the Model Y is going to be disappointed. We can be reasonably sure that Tesla will give the Model Y a curved roof, same as the Model X… and for exactly the same reason: To maximize energy efficiency, and therefore maximize range.

It will be interesting to see what Tesla does with the design for its pickup. I expect something that looks quite different from an F-150!

That curved roof removes the U in CUV/SUV.

“Tesla Model S proves that you can have both, aero and good looks.”

Bingo! IMHO that should be the goal; aim for both.

I’m not a fan of the “shark’s snout” on the Model 3. I think that’s taking form following function too far.

But an FFF design is harder to achieve for cars which are intended to maximize cargo area. For SUVs, CUVs, hatchbacks, minivans, and station wagons, a flat roof is preferred. Tesla gave the Model X a curved roof to improve aero drag, but it came at the expense of functionality.

I pity the shark with a snout like that!

Model 3 looks good from other angles, though. S looks good from all angles. If Model X has a good angle it’s well hidden. And the form follows function argument falls apart once you see those doors.

Aero becomes less important as charging speed improves. Tesla road trippers rarely Supercharge much beyond 60% due to taper. It’s faster to stop more often so charging rate stays high.

Of course dynamic charging is the real answer for road trips. But Model S is good enough for most trips and a 200 mile BEV with true 350kW to 80% will outrun Model S over distance.

Yeah, building vehicles that acknowledge that it take huge amounts of energy to move through a fluid are such a buzzkill. I want fish and birds that look like a barn, just like an SUV.

Do you drop your kids at school in a fish or a bird?

Do Not Read Between The Lines

No. But if I had children, and I could drop them off in a bird I absolutely would do that.
I suspect that if I had children, I could drop them off in any car. I’ve heard they’re small and supple.
But I’d probably have them walk, cycle or take the bus.

But how does your Dymaxion handle?

It’s Not Visual Pollution ., If It’s Done Right And In Good Taste By a Qualified Designer ..

Shame the Nexo isn’t available as an EV. It looks good.

Can’t get much S3Xier than Teslas IMO and they rule in aerodynamics. So having streamlined good looks is the best of both.

I agree for the Model S. Clearly not the X. For me the 3 is in between, much less sexy than a S.
The Porsche Taycan should look great.

When I look at the top 10 selling vehicles in the US utility definitely seems to trump aerodynamic efficiency. I certainly love my model 3’s styling and efficiency but the back seat is pretty severely compromised (the seat cushion is *really low*). If I routinely carried rear passengers long distances I would have bought a different car. I understand that with current battery prices aerodynamic efficiency needs to be given high priority to provide reasonable highway range per kWh of battery. Hopefully as battery prices fall for CUVs at least Utility can get a seat at the table too.

It’s possible to get good highway efficiency with more headroom—the exterior looks will suffer from being upright.

Take, e.g. BMW i3 and the clear design clone Chevrolet Bolt.

I have a i3, but at the moment it’s in for service and I’m driving a 530e. Looks good from far away, but it’s big on the outside, small on the inside.

Refreshing to read something actually intelligent on the internet for a change.

I’ll have my Leaf paid off in 2024 so am looking forward to some great EVs next decade I guess.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, whereas operating efficiency is quantifiable. In the big picture, shouldn’t our goal be energy consumption reduction, with aerodynamics being THE primary contributor in vehicles?

Throwing a firecracker into the crowd, I miss the rear wheelwell skirts of my Gen1 Honda Insight (replaced by BEVs)…

Someone has an agenda for justifying less than compelling design. The Kona may turn out to be excellent and well received however its’ appearance seems to have been inspired by bean counters not an artist. Just my opinion.

Sounds like this guy Chapman might mature into someone who could qualify for a job with Tesal in about 5 years.

The same people that love the way the I-pace look are shocked how poor the highway efficiency is.
On the other hand, my ’17 Leaf has a face only a mother could love.

If you compare any Tesla with any Hyundai, I think the aesthetic and CdA award goes to the Californian upstarts. That said Hyundai do manage to get better than most MPGe results, so maybe Mr Chapman is (just, maybe) onto something!