NOVI, Mich. — During a week when journalists queued for 10-minute test drives of the Tesla Model S electric sedan in Fremont, Calif., this reporter enjoyed a stint in another new E.V., albeit one with decidedly less curb appeal.
No flag-waving employees, no charismatic chief executives and no governors had congregated on June 19 around the Tata Emo concept, or Electric Mobility Study, in a parking lot in northern suburb of Detroit. Granted, the concept included only a notional motor-drive system, not a production unit. It was little more than a way to move the car on and off a stage.
“The Emo was built as a kind of calling card,” said Peter Davis, the chief of design at Tata Technologies, a branch of the Tata Group conglomerate based in India. With offices in Singapore, Britain, Novi as well as Pune, India, the division provides engineering and design services to automakers and other manufacturers. The Emo resulted from a joint effort by teams in Pune and Novi.
Mr. Davis is a veteran of General Motors and Fiat design staffs. Also on hand in Novi was Nikunj Jain, a designer for Tata Technologies.
The Emo symbolizes a philosophy of designing and marketing electric cars that is very different from that employed by Tesla, or for that matter Nissan or Ford. Rather than addressing the top or middle of the market, the Emo is an effort to devise a bare-bones, low-priced E.V. In theory — no production plans have been made by Tata — the Emo would be priced around $20,000, excluding any applicable government incentives.
Mr. Davis stressed that the Emo did not represent an electrified Nano, the people’s car built by Tata Motors that has met with limited success. Among Americans, Tata may be best known for the Nano, along with its ownership of Jaguar Land Rover.
For the teams involved, the goal was to provide the maximum amount of interior space in relation to the car’s footprint. Mr. Davis restated Tata’s performance estimates for the four-door supermini: a top speed of 65 miles per hour and a range of 100 miles. Engineers asserted that if it were tested by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Emo would beat the 112-miles-per-gallon-equivalent efficiency figure for the Mitsubishi i.
The car’s steeply angled front and headlights create a face that is part wasp, part cobra. It garnered attention at the Detroit auto show in January, where it was displayed at the exhibit of the Michelin Challenge Design program.
The body and chassis were engineered to meet European and American safety standards, Mr. Davis said, but that did not suggest they were production-ready. “If we put it in production we would refine the aero,” he said.
To get the most out of the space, the design team made some unconventional decisions. The rear doors open front to rear, offering easier access to the back, where the seats fold down for cargo. Meanwhile, the almost upright rear end does not include a hatch, but rather a single fixed polycarbonate panel with integrated taillights and other electronics.
For the driver, the car’s most notable feature may be the steeply raked windshield. It seemed only about a half inch from this driver’s head. Mr. Davis acknowledged that in production it would be altered. But visibility was excellent in all directions and the interior certainly felt capacious.
Windshield wipers cleverly park themselves not in the conventional manner, at the base of the windshield, but along the A-pillars to each side of the windshield, which simplifies the design of the hood. Though not a design first, Mr. Davis said it was representative of the small innovations in the car. The design team has identified 15 potential patents growing out of the Emo’s design.
Its cabin includes a floating center console similar to that in Volvos. For the Michelin display the design team devised a series of interior options, with various materials and colors. In the spirit of designing the technology globally and the style locally, they brought in a local consultant, Sally Erickson Wilson, who drew a set of suggested color palettes, including hues inspired by the Detroit area’s emblematic Pewabic Pottery.
The process of creating the Emo was also an exercise in cost management.
“The first thing we did was get rid of the paint shop,” Mr. Davis said. To keep costs down, the Emo, like the Smart Fortwo, uses only integrally colored or powder-coated composite panels. Curb weight was held to under 1,000 kilograms, roughly 2,200 pounds. The process revealed the limits of the barebones approach; the battery in such a vehicle would account for 40 percent of its total cost, Mr. Davis said.
But as the price of batteries declines, Tata’s lower-end strategy should become more attractive, Mr. Davis said. Defenders of E.V.’s see an analogue in the personal-computer industry of the early 1980s, when the microprocessor represented the critical cost.
To reduce power consumption, Mr. Davis said, the designers chose headlights of narrow LED strips. Under the impression these would require cooling, designers plotted an air channel between them, creating a clawlike shape. “This turned out to be unnecessary,” Mr. Davis said, but around the studio they proceeded to call the headlight shape “the lobster claw.”
But Mr. Davis and Mr. Jain had no ready explanation for the pattern of the wheels, which appeared to combine the multiple arms of the Hindu deity Shiva with 1890s art nouveau representations of electrical sparks.
By PHIL PATTON