Canoo burst onto the scene in September with the introduction of its first electric vehicle, simply dubbed the canoo, wrapped in a sleek black skin. The shiny black wrap hides many of the angles and nuance of the exterior, so we were excited when Canoo reached out to invite us down to their headquarters in Torrance, California for a look behind the scenes.
The facility itself is tucked back in an unassuming business park in the Southern California city of Torrance. The city is better known for its refineries and oil processing industry than its zero emission vehicles, but Canoo envisions a better future where people get around in connected, autonomous, shared, electric vehicles that don’t require burning things.
As the sun came up, its early rays ushered in a steady flow of employees in electric vehicles of all makes and models, all vying for one of the EV charging spots tucked back in the company’s rear parking lot. EV drivers are the forward thinking folks, the thought leaders, the world changers, and the doers not just in the clean tech bubble, but in the world at large. They not only take what currently exists today, but also imagine what’s around the corner at the possibilities these technologies enable, at the future that is to come, then work to make that future a reality today.
We sat down with Ulrich “Ulli” Kranz, currently In Charge at Canoo, for a look behind the curtain at what really makes Canoo tick. Ulli talked about how the world of mobility is undergoing one of the most violent disruptions in human history and most people aren’t even awake to the change yet. The team at Canoo is working to actively shape and to create that better future, starting with its first vehicle, the canoo. Canoos are simple vehicles and harken back to a time when life moved at a slower pace. They conjure a sense of relaxation and calm, and it is exactly that almost zen-like state of mind that Canoo aspires to embody.
One clear path forward he sees is with electrified, connected mobility. I asked if Canoo was more of an electric vehicle company or a mobility company and Ulli shared that at Canoo, the two go hand in hand. Many of its hires are from mobility companies like Uber, while many of its leadership team hail from the early disruption at BMW i followed by some time spent at would-be disruptor Faraday Future.
Canoo sprouted out of a sense of possibility more than the simple need to develop a new technology or vehicle. The company has evolved very rapidly in its 18 short months of existence that saw it rapidly evolve from a startup with ideas to revealing the prototype of its first vehicle, to having a path to production, and the market.
one platform, many vehicles
Ulli explained that the skateboard underpinning the canoo is foundational to the future of Canoo. The skateboard was intentionally designed to sit in the sweet spot where it can support the largest number of vehicles. With a footprint that’s basically the same size of a Toyota Prius, its first vehicle, the canoo, leverages the low platform to create a transformative vehicle experience that seats 6 or 7 passengers comfortably.
Achieve Inner Zen
Sitting in the rear of the canoo with Ulli, I mentioned that it felt more like we were sitting in an office than in a vehicle and he just smiled. Designer Richard Kim told me the vehicle was designed with the concept of zen in mind and it delivers. The soft tones used throughout the vehicle, the smooth texture of the recycled PET headliner, Canoo’s 3D Wood that surrounds the two captains chairs up front, and the soft, adjustable LED ambience lighting woo passengers into a calm they don’t even realize they’re experiencing.
The in-car experience is a masterfully stitched together narrative that transforms the interior of the vehicle from being a part of a car to more of a living room on wheels. The fabrics, materials, and lighting all work together to soften the experience and definitely feel a lot like the BMW i3, also designed by Canoo lead designer Richard Kim.
The layout of the cabin feels more like a couch than an automobile, invoking a desire to relax, to lay back and even to put up a foot. Canoo developed a unique mounting system that lives in the vehicle to allow owners and after market companies to develop their own accessories for the interior. The demo vehicle was kitted out with an analog clock and a succulent that soften the interior with accents that would be more at home on a desk than in a vehicle.
This makes it easy for owners to not only make a fashion statement, but to increase the utility of their vehicle without the need for permanent modifications. Canoo developed a handful of accessories like skateboard holders, laptop storage, and cupholders to demonstrate the capability with the full knowledge that the community of enthusiasts will take it in their own direction. It’s a functional blank canvas, if you will.
I am from the future
The bubblesque exterior of the vehicle begs to be from the future while the spacious, clean interior makes it easy to imagine droves of passengers being shuttled around town autonomously, as if suddenly transported decades into the future by the vehicle. Its sleek black exterior looks overly bulbous at first sight, but after closer inspection in real life, reveals a generous application of windows throughout the cabin that offer unparalleled views that are not only beautiful, but functional.
A special window out front that sits below the centerline of the vehicle gives drivers a view of the road in front of the vehicle that simply can’t be matched. It not only makes it nicer to drive the vehicle, it makes driving around crowded parking lots or into garages that much safer. Personally, I found it to be a nice way to highlight the fact that the vehicle doesn’t require an engine: “This window shall forever memorialize the internal combustion engine that powered vehicles in generations long gone past.”
Instead of offering the vehicle in a wide array of colors, Canoo instead designed the vehicle with vinyl wraps in mind. The wide, flat body panels make it easy to install whatever type, color, or texture vinyl graphics the owner desires in only a few minutes. That not only makes it easy to get the desired color, but to swap it out later if the vinyl is damaged or the vehicle owner/renter changes their minds.
After leaving the design studio, we worked our way over to explore a drive-by-wire setup that provides a nice visual of how Canoo’s fully digital steering system works. They expect it to be the first drive-by-wire system with no mechanical linkage in a production vehicle.
The demo set one of Canoo’s skateboards next to a partially assembled body in the shop. A pair of fat wires connected the two, but other than that, the two assemblies were fully independent. One of Canoo’s experts turned the steering wheel and lo and behold, the tires on the skateboard turned. Not only is the setup great for demonstrating the functionality of the system, it is a practical way to test all of the systems on the skateboard from the cockpit of the vehicle.
Switching from a traditional mechanical linkage with drive-by-wire capability to a fully isolated drive-by-wire system enabled Canoo to carve out the space in the dash typically reserved for the steering linkage. Opening up the front of the vehicle in front of the driver contributes to the spacious interior, giving back not only physical space, but giving back some visual space in the front of the vehicle. It also simplifies the assembly process by removing the only mechanical linkage between the skateboard and the body.
Canoo is leaning heavily into technology with a number of advanced manufacturing processes to streamline the manufacturing of the process, and this approach also touches on advanced safety systems. Canoo is developing facial recognition software that has the potential to be deployed as a core component of an active safety system.
Outside the vehicle, recognizing humans and expressions has the potential to help the vehicle know whether it is safe to proceed or not. Is human 1 looking at the car? Is human 2 slowing down upon approaching the intersection? Is human 3 talking on the phone? Being able to sense and predict likely human actions can make vehicles even safer both as an active safety system and as part of an autonomous vehicle sensing network.
Inside the vehicle, mobility companies are debating the need for driver monitoring systems. For example, if a driver has a Level 3 autonomous system engaged that can handle “most” driving situations, the driver must still be ready to take control at a moments notice. Monitoring the driver’s facial expression can help the vehicle issue admittedly annoying alerts, haptic feedback, or visual aids to correct the situation.
In the future
The future is being shaped right before our eyes. Canoo’s solutions bring technology, electric vehicle powertrains, and lifestyle elements in a way that have the potential to resonate with today’s urban youth, especially as the vehicles achieve increasingly greater levels of autonomous capabilities.
Canoo promises to bring that future to the world not today, but in the very near future, and I for one am getting excited about it. Having said that, the road to not just a production vehicle, but to producing actual vehicles is dark and full of terrors that keep even the most seasoned of automotive professionals up at night. We will be keeping a close watch on the company to see the production version of the canoo and the inevitable stream of vehicles that will follow.
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