Roadshow

Your next car may be a skateboard

Planning on buying an electric car? A skateboard chassis might be in your future.

Rivian

Your eyes may glaze over at the mention of a car's "platform," but carmakers lose sleep trying to come up with one that supports the kind of car you'll like. So pay attention. 

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"Platform" refers to what we commonly, and somewhat erroneously, call the chassis of a car: The belly pan, suspension, mounting points for engine, transmission, doors, gas tank and more. It's the most expensive, complicated thing an automaker does so they try to base as many cars as possible on as few platforms as they can. For example, the current Toyota Camry, Avalon, RAV4 and Lexus ES all share a platform, even though they're very different vehicles. 

2016-toyota-c-hr-tnga-platform

This cutaway of Toyota's New Generation Architecture is a good snapshot of a modern, conventional platform. Many body styles can be draped over a single platform with fairly limited modifications.

Toyota

But electric vehicles from Tesla, Rivian, Byton and Faraday, as well as those from stalwarts like GM, use a new kind of platform referred to as a "skateboard," generally defined by these traits:

  • A low flat battery that is the structural belly of the car. It can be lengthened or shortened pretty easily for different models while creating few intrusions into the floor of the vehicle.
  • Compact motors at the ends or corners of the skateboard get out of the way compared to the cumbersome engine, transmission and driveline of most combustion engine cars.  
  • Drive-by-wire accelerator, brakes, drive control and even steering removes the hard mounting points and intrusions for all those controls.
gm-autonomy

General Motors' 2002 Autonomy concept is a clear, if somewhat stylized, example of the low, flat nature of the skateboard platform that is spreading through the auto industry today. Compare it to the conventional Toyota platform above to see how much less it dictates the rest of the car that rides on it.

General Motors

Any number of bodies can then be easily designed to ride atop the skateboard since it dictates less of their specifics. This gives a carmaker greater efficiency by reducing assembly line complexity while gaining nimbleness as consumer tastes change. 

The skateboard platform may sound like an innovation from the auto industry's recent swing toward Silicon Valley but, in fact, it's generally credited to GM's Autonomy concept car of 2002. That vehicle imagined a skateboard as a way to take advantage of hydrogen fuel cell drivetrain technology.  The hydrogen part is still a work in progress but, 18 years later, the idea of a skateboard has proved a prescient one.