How do you make two cars feel different? With an engine there are near-limitless permutations when it comes to cylinder number and layout, along with their bore, stroke and firing order, plus turbo- and supercharging too. But with electric motors, their commonality, sitting in a generic skateboard chassis, leaves little room for manoeuvre.
The power output of the motors can be adjusted, of course, and the Porsche Taycan employs a two-speed gearbox to set itself apart from the single-geared majority. But, on the whole and at least for now in these nascent days of mainstream electrification, EVs mostly feel the same.
Fearful of being unable to stand out, car manufacturers are looking to differentiate in any way they can, and several big-name OEMs are turning to Icon Incar, a German firm that specializes in driver user experience. Having worked with BMW, among others, for years on the look and feel of infotainment systems, Icon Incar is now turning its hand to how cars feel.
We’re not talking leather, metal and a host of recycled fabrics. This is about haptic technology, where actuators in the seat, steering wheel and every other touch point of a car’s interior deliver a physical, tactile sensation to the driver and their passengers. By partnering with a haptic actuator firm called Woojer, Icon Incar wants to make electric cars feel however their manufacturers want them to.
“With Woojer we have these actuators,” says Icon Incar chief executive Thomas Fellger. “They are in the seat and become your feedback for how fast you are going. The bass of an exhaust, for example, can be created and transferred with the actuators through the seat. You sit there and it’s pretty amazing. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”
Fellger is entirely confident that his company can make electric cars feel exactly how manufacturers want, and crucially without the sensation coming across as a gimmick. At its most extreme, he says the technology could make a regular electric car feel like a Formula One racer.
“What I can tell you for sure is the experience of driving a car with this kind of technology really will let you feel like you’re driving a Formula One car. Because all senses give you the feedback of going fast, and it gives you the feeling that this is good…The seat is giving you goosebumps through the rumbling [of the haptic actuators]. So you sit in the seat and you feel like you have, for example, a V12 behind you that is alive and working. It really gives you those kinds of goosebumps.”
Fellger adds: “I think we are already a good step forward…I think it’s fun. We already have an OEM who has committed to work with us on it.”
But, while driving enthusiasts worried about the lack of soul of future electric sports cars could benefit from such haptic wizardry, Icon Incar wants to please other customers too. Fellger explains: “The new car community, they are not looking for [a physical driving sensation]…if you talk to my 19-year-old son and his friends, they would rather have a larger battery and be able to play their PC games in the car and use the car as a console.”
Tesla understands this too, fitting its new Model S and X cars with gaming computers as powerful as an Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5, for entertaining passengers, or while parked at a charger.
Fellger explains how younger consumers aren’t looking for how a car feels while driving, but what else they can do while on the journey. Can they work, or communicate with someone? Can they be entertained and let the car drive for them? Lighting, sound and haptic technologies play a part in this future, Fellger says. “The next consumers are not the ones who will be buying a Porsche for the feeling.”
Icon Incar has “done some crazy stuff,” with haptic technology, Fellger says. “You can take an electric car today and if you want to you can make it become like something from StarTrek. You can have sound, lighting, and actually create a [user experience] that is like a spaceship.”
But it won’t happen overnight. Fellger says: “Actuators will become a big part of every experience. Haptic buttons are not being done well yet; we are in the first days of using this kind of stuff…I believe there will be a lot of change in the future and the siloed thinking of OEMs will be broken up because the consumer will give them a hard time.”