Electric Cars

Canoo wants to bring this pod-like, subscription-only EV to market in 2021

Canoo wants to shake up the EV market and the process of vehicle ownership in one fell swoop.

It's electric, it's weird and we kind of dig it.

Canoo

Convenience is a pretty big motivator for most people. Look at the app store on your phone, or your Amazon order history, and you'll see that you're probably pretty heavily invested in the ecosystem of convenience.

Car ownership, however, isn't especially convenient most of the time. Financing a car, making payments, dealing with maintenance and other matters like insurance and depreciation all make it kind of hassle. Vehicle subscription services have cropped up, which offer an alternative to traditional buying or leasing. But California-based Canoo is taking things one step further, by building a subscription-based vehicle service that includes producing its very own car, and the company showed its first efforts to members of the media at its Torrance headquarters on Tuesday.

Canoo was founded in December 2017 by a bunch of auto industry vets, nearly all of whom came from companies like BMW, Icon Aircraft, Uber and more. The idea was that they could build a safe and affordable electric vehicle that would be sold in a way that embraced convenience and a growing sharing economy.

The result of the company's 19-month sprint isn't exactly the sexiest thing on four wheels, but it's different in a way that's both intriguing and approachable, while somehow still coming off as desirable.

Aesthetically, I'd describe Canoo's first vehicle -- which is actually just called "Canoo" -- as what minivans could look like now if Toyota had continued to embrace the exquisite weirdness and technical brilliance of the Previa. That is to say, the Canoo is kind of Twinkie-shaped, with tons of glass everywhere, including little "safari windows" that are kind of like pop-out versions of the Alpine lights you'll find on a Land Rover.

The Canoo is incredibly low to the ground and its wheels are pushed as far out to the corners as possible, in an effort to offer the maximum amount of flat interior floor space. One unique feature is that the glass of the windshield continues down the front of the vehicle to the floor, offering a pretty wild view of the road ahead, thanks to the lack of firewall or a traditional dashboard with a steering column.

Speaking of the lack of steering column, one of the more exciting features of the Canoo is its total lack of a mechanical link between the steering wheel and the steering rack. The vehicle is entirely steer-by-wire, which allows the developers a great deal of freedom in determining both the overall interior layout and the fine-tuning of the steering itself. The Canoo's steering wheel (which is more of a square) will go from center to lock in just 90 degrees at low speeds. As speeds increase, the ratio changes to make the car feel more stable. This ultra-quick steering also makes the Canoo's square-squircle steering not-wheel thing possible to use in production.

The rest of the interior is somehow both more conventional and less conventional than the oddly shaped steering wheel. The rear seat is unique in that it's more like a sectional sofa than a traditional rear bench. The seating arrangement wraps around the side of the vehicle and even includes folding chairs on the side doors. It sounds weird, but with the amount of space inside the Canoo, it kind of works.

Steering.. square?

Canoo

The front seats are more conventional, with two individual buckets that draw their inspiration from mid-century modern furniture. The Canoo's dash bucks the Tesla trend of big screens by having no screens. Yep, that's right, there are no interior screens in the Canoo. The dash uses what the company calls a concealed information display which is made up of an array of RGB LEDs behind fabric. When the system is off, it looks like nothing is there. Turn the vehicle on, and the lights shine legibly through the fabric to display things like speed, range and more.

According to Canoo's engineers, the decision to ditch screens came down to two things: cost and usability. The cost argument is simple. Screens cost money, and so does developing things that go on them. Instead, there are several options for places to dock your phone, which ties into the usability argument. Specifically, you already know how to use your phone, and its screen is exceptionally high quality, so it's easy to read and doesn't require you to learn a new system.

Canoo plans to offer its vehicle with what it calls "Level 2+" autonomy when it launches in 2021. This means that it will have the same kinds of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that we see in cars now, like adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring and more. It will also use a new proprietary driver monitoring system to help keep those technologies from being too intrusive.

From a hardware standpoint, Canoo is using a setup very similar to what we're seeing in current Teslas. Specifically, it's using radar, ultrasonic sensors and cameras, but no lidar. This is to keep overall cost down, as well, though Canoo boss Ulrich Kranz assures me that more advanced levels of autonomous driving features are in development.

The wraparound bench seat looks comfy.

Canoo

Cost is something that plays a massive role in the way that Canoo looks and feels. Keeping the price of the vehicle down without sacrificing the quality of the materials or systems was of paramount importance during the design process, and the results are pretty impressive. Other cost-saving measures include the use of thermoplastic body panels, limited to two colors initially. This cuts down on the cost of painting, and because the body panels of the Canoo aren't what anyone would consider complex shapes, molding them is easy and relatively inexpensive.

Underneath the plastic body panels is a steel framework that was designed for ease of construction, in addition to crash safety. This structure is mounted to the Canoo's "skateboard" floor, which houses the motors, brakes, suspension and battery pack.

The battery pack is integrated into the skateboard chassis. This means that there is no pack enclosure like you'd find in a Tesla, again reducing cost and complexity. The pack is composed of 16 modules, and in total has a capacity of 80 kilowatt hours. Canoo estimates that this will be good for a range of about 250 miles on the EPA cycle. The pack can handle DC fast charging and will charge to 80% in around half an hour. Like the Tesla Model 3, the Canoo's pack is built from thousands of individual lithium-ion cells.

The drive units for the Canoo are relatively conventional but were designed in-house. Each drive unit consists of a permanent-magnet motor which is oil-cooled and drives a single-ratio transmission. The rear-drive unit produces 300 horsepower, while the smaller front-drive unit makes less, though the company hasn't said just how much less as of this writing.

Coming to a road near you (maybe) in 2021.

Canoo

The Canoo's suspension design is kind of unique in that it ditches conventional struts and springs and instead uses transverse leaf springs, like a Corvette's rear suspension. These springs are made out of composite material, rather than metal, to reduce weight. The vehicle's damping is handled by short and low-mounted shocks so that the highest point of the entire skateboard is at the top of the wheels. Again, here we see intelligent engineering being used in place of expensive tech to help reduce cost and complexity.

Nearly all of the vehicle's development was done with the aid of computer simulation. This means that the Canoo was designed on computers, its manufacturing process was developed with computer simulations and its even undergone a large part of its initial crash safety development using computer simulation. This has been key in allowing Canoo to develop its car so thoroughly in such a short amount of time.

It's all very fascinating, but of course, we still have a lot of questions. Canoo hasn't specifically detailed the particulars of its subscription program, only saying the vehicle will be affordable -- even if we don't know what that means in real dollars. Still, if Canoo can get past this beta-testing phase, lock down its production partners and fully flesh out its subscription model, we'll be curious to see if this pod-shaped wonder will actually change the way we look at car ownership in 2021 and beyond.