Forget Tesla and BMW, Smart believes it’s going to beat its electric rivals…and it’s done similar before
Everybody wants to make a clever city car nowadays, and if you look at the current trends in automotive tech, it’s easy to see why. In the future, urban populations will use cars for short trips from one side of the city to the other – making them perfect for electric power. What’s more, the EVs we’re using will eventually be autonomous, and third, instead of buying them, we may just rent and share them anyway.
Take a look around the show floor at this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show and you’ll find a concept or “close to production” car from every manufacturer that ticks at least one of those autonomous, electric or shared boxes. For example, Volkswagen has the ID concept, BMW the Mini Electric and i3, while Honda has the new cute-looking Urban EV concept. But wind back the clock and there’s one company that’s always been making city cars.
Before Tesla or the Nissan Leaf ever existed, Smart designed the ultimate city car. The Smart car looked strange when it was first released in 1998, but around 20 years later it’s an unlikely forerunner to the cars we’ll be using in the future.
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Last year, Smart took the obvious step of putting powertrains in its electric cars, but with so many competitors now wanting some of its turf, what does it do next? To find out how Smart plans to stay remain a pioneer of mobility when everyone wants to takes its patch, and what it thinks the future of transport, I spoke to the CEO of Smart, Annette Winkler, at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
Electric Drive only
The Smart Vision EQ Concept represents the next step in the carmaker’s vision, but before that, it’s worth looking at what Smart just announced. “We plan to offer Smart in North America and Europe as of 2020 only in Electric Drive,” Smart’s CEO Annette Winkler tells me. “Smart will be the first combustion brand to be transformed into a purely electric drive brand. And I think the motivation for that is quite clear.”
“Smart always was being thought of to be electric from the very beginning, and now we think the time has come to realise that vision, because now everybody is open to electric drive,” Winkler explains. “Compared to when you spoke three to five years ago, there’s been a total shift in thinking and interest and attention on electric platform cars. There’s no brand that could do that better than Smart.”
Although it may seem like another drastic decision, the move to EV only makes more sense for Smart than it does for most manufacturers. According to Winkler, most Smart drivers are city-based, and make journeys of around 35 to 40 kilometres per day – well below the range limits of current EV tech.
Interestingly, Smart’s switch over to EVs won’t be as gradual as for its Mercedes sibling. At the same show, Mercedes unveiled the Project One, a love letter to hybrid tech, but Winkler tells me Smart won’t be using hybrid tech at all – and it has some compelling reasons.
“Hybrids wouldn’t make sense,” she says. “First of all, it’s a packaging problem, then it’s a cost issue.” What’s more, I’m told that the usage of existing customers, and the locations they’re based in, means the range-extending capability you get from a hybrid car just isn’t important.
The future for Smart
So, other than dropping electric powertrains into its existing cars, what else can Smart do to maintain its position as the ultimate city car? That’s the question I pose to Smart’s CEO, and in response, she points me to Smart’s Vision EQ Concept.
Sitting on a stand behind the Project One hypercar, the Vision EQ Concept may look a little similar to existing Smart cars, but contains several key features missing from brand’s current models. White, glossy, and in parts translucent, the concept looks like something from WALL-E, but it’s a significant showcase of the tech Smart thinks all future cars will need.
Those ideas can be summarised by the acronym CASE: C standing for connected, A for autonomous, S for shared and services, and E for electric.
“This is the combination of everything we think new technologies will make possible in order to prove quality of life in cities and of mobility,” Smart’s CEO tells me. “It’s a car with level 5 autonomous [capabilities], absolutely focused on sharing. That means one to two passengers, small personalisation, communications, gadgets – and a service provider so it’s kind of like a butler.”
“There’s no pedals, no steering wheel – it’s really a living room. That’s also a thing about autonomous and electric cars – it makes it possible to deliver much more space and much more homeliness.”
However, it’s clear that the concept’s 24in dashboard screen, emoji-displaying grille and backwards-scissor doors probably won’t make it to production. Instead, Winkler sees it as a platform to showcase themes Smart is currently thinking about. “It’s an extreme, uncompromising showcar where we present our ideas of digitalisation for improvement of urban traffic,” she explains.
Just like every other manufacturer, Smart believes the future of cars will revolve around technology – but Smart thinks it’s in the best place to make it happen, and I actually agree. Every manufacturer can build cute concept cars, but Smart’s firsthand knowledge of the city-car market means that ideas from its R&D department have a much higher chance of ending up on our roads.