Interview with Anthony Lo

Just as musicians are generally at a loss to tell you which composer most inspires them, car designers struggle to pinpoint the precise vehicle that started the whole ‘car’ thing for them. Most name one car – the most beautiful, most evocative, the one they really feel a special connection to – and then go on to name several other such cars. It’s a cruel question in some ways.

Anthony Lo, however, vividly recalls for me his first ride in the back seat of a Lamborghini Espada whilst growing up in Hong Kong. With infinite overhangs, a four-litre V12 shared with the Miura and a properly tarmac-hugging stance, Gandini’s Espada is a fittingly outrageous stimulus for the designer of equally jaw-dropping concepts such as the Saab Aero X and Opel Flextreme. He says he’s still trying to understand the proportions, and he’s certainly not alone. “That was an experience,” he grins, “with a super loud V12 blasting through the streets of Hong Kong”.

Building the people's EV

Lo is now employed by a company at the forefront of delivering super quiet electric motors to the mass market, and as Renault VP of Exterior Design he directly influences how EVs are perceived. Working alongside Laurens van den Acker, it's a critically important task when image and how people would like to be perceived by others holds so much sway. There is, of course, more to the EV game than design however.

Despite driving a ZOE as a company car during the week, Lo admits what many people are thinking; that it’s not necessarily range but infrastructure that’s holding back EV sales. “I think this is the issue with many potential customers today. I can’t charge at home – I’m living in a third floor apartment and the car park doesn’t have a plug.” It’s a crude yet decisive problem.

Running an EV during the week makes sense, though, as there are plenty of EV-friendly parking bays outside Renault’s Technocentre in Guyancourt. Many of Renault’s suppliers sit within a 10km radius of the facility, too, so three Twizys and a couple of ZOEs are on standby for everyone to use. This is perhaps the best application of electric mobility at the moment – short but frequent journeys in urban environments. The Twizy’s 50-mile range is more than enough for this kind of activity and car sharing further reduces each person’s carbon footprint.  

“It’s wonderful because you can drive very calmly – you drive differently – with electric cars as you’re not in a hurry anymore. You just cruise, knowing that you’ll be a couple of minutes late but you don’t worry. You feel really intelligent driving them”. Many of the Renault staff, Lo included, are in tune with what electric mobility stands for and you can’t help but feel that most detractors have yet to ride in an EV let alone drive one.

Lo left his post as Director of Advanced Design at GM in 2010, but perhaps his most famous project, the Saab Aero X Concept, drew inspiration from Saab's aviation heritage. The concept had no A-pillars so the model seen here is nearly complete in terms of bodywork. Intended to dictate Saab's future design language, the Aero X developed 400hp from a twin-turbo BioPower V6. Box ticker.

Renault has put the emphasis of its electric car program on affordability, and the £13,995 that the ZOE starts at in the UK is comparable to combustion-engined superminis such as the Ford Fiesta and Alfa Romeo Mito. This is at odds with BMW – the other European car giant investing heavily in electric technology – who take a different angle with the upcoming i3 and i8 models, aiming to skim the top of the EV market with prices north of £30,000. Whilst Lo concedes that BMW’s use of lightweight materials such as carbon fibre will benefit the electric drivetrain he doesn’t see BMWi, slightly ironically, as a sustainable brand.

“It’s an experiment that will probably pay off from an image point of view, but I don’t see that it will work out as a business,” he senses, and although the i8 in particular has garnered at lot popularity there’s no way of knowing how things will unfold until order books open later this year. Current manufacturing processes will make both cars “super expensive” to build and loss-making philanthropic gestures will last only so long. The bottom line is what counts. That said, a company with over a million likes on Facebook without even a tangible product on the road certainly has something to shout about.

“If you have a good product that can reduce emissions you want everyone to drive around in it, that’s a little bit more the Renault approach”, he says, conveniently forgetting that if Renault tried to charge £35,000 for a car that gave up the ghost after 120 miles they’d be laughed out of town. BMW, at least, has a fighting chance but what Renault is trying to do at the other end of the market is admirable and potentially decisive.

On the subject of range extenders – small engines designed to recharge an electric vehicle’s battery on the move – Lo remains unconvinced, believing the excess weight is detrimental to performance and the very act of hydrocarbon-burning in a so-called ‘EV’ a contradiction of the entire endeavour. An electric car should emit zero emissions, take it or leave it.

Weight is still the number one obstacle to reducing emissions on a grand scale. Simplifying components - making them thinner and lighter yet stronger – is an ongoing challenge to carmakers but it’s new materials that will usher in major breakthroughs. “You can in theory replace all the glass with polycarbonate, it’s just a cost issue. There’s also reliability as it gets scratches, but if you go to SABIC [formerly GE Plastics], they say they have a coating that performs the same as real glass,” says Lo dubiously, adding that there’s also the potential to replace steel in the chassis and body with composite plastics or aluminium. Cost, however, remains a problem as such plastics require a very large injection-moulding tool whereas advances in the stamping process – notably by Audi - have made aluminium more cost effective.

Renault has all but promised that we'll see an electric version of the new Twingo this year. It's likely to borrow heavily, at least in terms of form, from the Twin'Z Concept unveiled at the Milan Furnitiure Fair in April. Adding to its zero emissions lineup shows considerable confidence in the electric vehicle market and engaging, approachable designs can only further the cause.

In terms of design Lo believes there are a couple of key changes to the requirements of electric vehicles that makes them look and feel different.

“Many people think [with electric cars] that you don’t need to cool the battery or electric motor; you still need to cool but not to the same degree as a gasoline engine. So you have less air intake, and when you have fewer air intakes you automatically getting a feeling that is more modern and futuristic. From the side view there’s a shorter nose because you don’t have all the components you’d normally have and then because of the battery in the floor you sit higher.”

Feeling different is one thing but looking drastically different is another. There’s a threshold concerning what people will accept into their lifestyles and what they’ll view as too exhibitionist. It’s something that designers in particular have to be alert to, and Lo is. “I’m not so sure that customers really want to make such a big deal about the fact that they bought an electric car, so we don’t want to scare them off by making it too strange.” Sales of the Nissan LEAF, for example, have undoubtedly suffered because the design isn’t quite right.

Creativity - the desire to create something novel - is a trait Renault seem to retain when others around them are losing it. Lo often compares sketches he does privately with the finished product, more out of curiosity than anything else. Sketching for his design team, however, is something he avoids. “There’s something that as a manager you shouldn’t do and that’s to sketch something and then show your designers. I have to find a way to inspire them without giving them an answer. I have to give them a direction and they have to work it out by themselves.”

The Life Cycle strategy is something Acker and Lo devised themselves, and now seems like a long time ago. It was 2010. “What Renault is doing now is the best job any designer could get, starting from scratch three years ago.” Working out a new identity for a brand must be exciting and from a Formula One-inspired Twizy to the Twin’Z Concept recently unveiled in Milan, Renault’s design team seems to have an unusual level of creative freedom, even considering Renault's past form.

“Laurens said to me, ‘we don’t know where we’re going to be a few years from now, but it’s up to us’”. In a world of increasingly stringent strategy waypoints that must be music to a car designer’s ears.

Is the ZOE the breakthrough EV? Quite possibly. Renault will lease buyers the battery for £70 a month, replacing it where it drops below 75% efficiency, and cost to buy is comparable to diesel engined Clio.

Being local to Paris, Lo is an advocate of both the Vélib’ bicycle-sharing and Autolib car-sharing initiatives in Paris, which come into their own, he believes, as people continue live further as further out from the city centres due to the high cost of rent. There are, however, compromises that many people won’t accept. “Car sharing is a difficult subject. I think we all want a car to be our own space; we don’t want to go in and for it to be a mess because the last user didn’t take care or respect others. That’s always hard to control”. Car sharing isn’t yet at a stage where it could substitute vehicle ownership, he adds, although young drivers without the means to buy a new car benefit considerably from the provisional nature of Autolib. 

Lo also disclosed that the Twizy platform has life in it yet. We can only speculate what that might be, but options are limited as the Twizy’s envelope is very, very small. Before anything along those lines appears we’re likely to see something electric and Twingo-sized at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September, where Renault’s ZE lineup will grow.


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