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Could this very odd-looking electric car convince you to ditch your SUV?

The Canoo seats seven, looks like a jelly bean, and shows how electric cars can ditch the old design conventions of the internal combustion engine automobile.

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A new electric vehicle called the Canoo, which will launch next year and opened a waitlist for customers on January 21, looks very little like a traditional car. That’s because it doesn’t have to, says Ulrich Kranz, a former BMW engineer who heads the L.A.-based startup. “With electric power trains, there’s actually no need that a car looks like a traditional combustion engine car,” he says.

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The basic shape of a car hasn’t really changed over a century, with space for an engine, space for passengers, and space for luggage, all arranged in basically the same configuration. But because powerful electric motors and batteries are smaller than a standard powertrain, the whole shape of the vehicle could transform, if car designers were feeling creative. Canoo designed what it calls a “skateboard,” a thin platform that holds the battery cells, powertrain, and suspension, leaving room for a spacious jelly bean-shaped pod on top. “Inside the vehicle, it is as big as a big Suburban, but the footprint of the vehicle is smaller than a Toyota Prius,” Kranz says. The interior looks like a small living room, with sofa-like seating in the back, and enough room to easily fit a surfboard or an Ikea cabinet.

[Photo: Canoo]

The company wants to convince drivers who own SUVs—which are more popular than smaller cars, and contributed more to the rise in CO2 emissions over the last decade than planes, trucks, and heavy industry—that it’s offering a better choice. The vehicle can drive 250 miles on a charge, and the battery can charge 80% in half an hour. There’s space for seven people, in total. Cameras, radar, and sensors offer lane departure warning, pedestrian safety, and other autonomous features; the car is designed to be updated so that it can eventually be fully autonomous. A “steer by wire” system means that it steers by electric signals, like an airplane, something that’s more responsive than a steering wheel.

[Photo: Canoo]

It’s launching first in Los Angeles, where the county now has an ambitious plan to transform transportation to cut emissions; as the government works to nudge more drivers to use public transportation, walk, and bike, it’s also helping push for electric vehicles, including by installing tens of thousands of workplace and public chargers. There’s no reason why, once the chargers are installed, that using an EV in L.A. would be any less convenient than a car running on fossil fuels.

[Photo: Canoo]

Canoo also hopes to woo more drivers with a subscription model. Instead of selling or leasing cars; customers pay a monthly fee that includes maintenance, registration, access to insurance and charging, and 24/7 use of the vehicle. (In the future, the company may also offer part-time subscriptions.) By using subscriptions, the company plans to avoid the legal requirement to have a dealership for automakers that sell cars directly. Not using dealerships and not having brick-and-mortar buildings will save 18% to 20% of the cost of the car, Kranz says.

“Part of the savings we will give back to customer with lower monthly payments and the other half of the savings we need to offset the higher battery costs.” The company hasn’t announced the subscription cost yet, but says that the low cost can help entice drivers who might have found other electric cars too expensive in the past; the fact that they can test the car for a month through the subscription, with no requirement to keep it, can also help.

[Photo: Canoo]

It’s designed for longevity, to make it as sustainable as possible; since the company retains ownership and maintenance of the cars, it can refurbish them periodically. Individual battery cells can be replaced as needed, rather than the whole battery, and the battery can also be sold for reuse in other applications at the end of life.

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Beta cars hit the road for testing last October, and are currently undergoing crash testing. After any minor adjustments, more prototypes will be ready for final testing this fall, and volume production will begin, with the first cars available in late 2021. After launching in L.A., the company plans to launch in other West Coast cities and then on the East Coast.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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