Electric vehicles, you’ve heard they’re going to be everywhere soon. That’s a realistic forecast for dealer lots at least, as most manufacturers are ready or close to introducing new all-electric models. Watch out for VW’s launch of the ID hatchback later in 2019, the first EV of an 8 model lineup. Porsche is close to revealing their first production electric sports sedan, the Taycan. Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Audi all have electric SUV already on sale and this segment will only get more crowded in the near future. What about an electric pickup truck? Well, there’s the one Tesla is working on that’ll probably promise to get you to Lowe’s and back home in under 3 seconds. Rivian is pressing on with developing their R1T pickup designed for adventure seekers. Ford is testing an electric F-150 prototype that apparently doubles as a train locomotive.
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US-based Atlis Motor Vehicles is a name you might not be familiar with. However, with the XT Pickup the company aims to be a formidable player in the electric light truck market, which in North America as you might assume is huge. In 2018, nearly 3 million pickup trucks were sold in the US. To appreciate that number, that’s 5 trucks sold every minute, over 365 days. If you really want to get into the weeds on what drives America’s appetite for pickups, check out this 2018 Pickup Truck Study by Cox Automotive that surveys the state of the segment. Included is an interesting de-bagged design lineup that asked people to correctly identify and name top selling pickup trucks based on styling (spoiler: the winner wasn’t Ford or GM)
Atlis, like Rivian are starting from scratch as a brand and manufacturer. They’re going up against the technology lead Tesla has and the manufacturing legacy of GM, Ford and potentially Toyota. Core77 spoke with both Mark Hanchett, CEO and Founder of Atlis Motor Vehicles and Ross Compton, Lead Designer to get the story behind the company and learn about how they’re designing a pickup truck for the twenty-first century.
Core77: For now, the most we can see about Atlis Motor Vehicles is online. Can you introduce the company and describe what you’re trying to achieve?
Mark Hanchett: So I think the most obvious thing that you see when you look at the website is it looks as though we’re basically just an automotive electric vehicle startup, and Atlis really is. However, the vision and the mission is so much more than that. It’s really about bringing sustainability to the world, but doing it in a way that is very centered on one of the most critical roles that exists in the world today, which is getting work done. What I mean by that is we’re building technology that can truly change the world in terms of bringing things like sustainable battery-powered vehicles, home battery solutions, energy storage, to the world, but through different business models and through new technology that we’re developing.
We’re not just building an electric vehicle, we’re building a business model around it that kind of breaks down some barriers that people have with shifting to electric, with subscription service ownership models that are kind of a blend between ownership, lease, and rent. But we actually have a vision where it’s long term, where technology, both software and hardware, is updated over time as you own that vehicle. Designs can be updated and it’s more of this progressive thing, and electrification brings that to the market.
The technology that we’re building to power the truck can then be applied to home energy storage as well as remote energy distribution. We’re in discussions today for some more developing areas of the world or more like disaster zones and areas of the world where we can actually bring some of this technology there and bring power generation to hospitals, to mobile hospitals and things like that. We’re looking at all the different aspects of what we’re building here. It’s far beyond just building the truck. It’s building a technology solution that works within an ecosystem of products.
An electric pickup truck seems like a particularly difficult vehicle to start with considering the additional load carrying, towing and offload capability criteria that needs to be solved. What drove the decision to do a truck instead of getting acclimated with say an SUV that’s more about packaging people and smaller cargo?
Mark Hanchett: Pickup trucks are evolving to become what SUVs used to be about. It’s the only automotive segment that’s really centered on capability. First of all, pickup trucks are designed to tow and haul and do various different tasks, right? Because of their capability in doing that and the fact that they’ve now grown into vehicles that have more room, some have four doors and there’s the option for back seats. People are even modify them to have six doors. The pickup truck is considered an option to the family SUV. It’s the one most desirable market that’s out there. It’s the number one, number two, and number three in terms of top-selling vehicles in the world. Passenger car sales are declining showing people are just, they’re not necessarily interested in them. They’re interested in the SUVs and pickup trucks.
Now, our particular focus is not necessarily on luxury trucks, or on adventure like Rivian. We’re very focused on the core aspects of what a pickup truck can do, which is for work trucks. It’s for construction crews, for utility crews, for cities. We’re focused on fleet customers, where bringing electrification to those markets can make the biggest impact at the fastest pace where they’re much more interested in doing it right away.
Ross, How did you approach designing for Atlis, a brand with no prior history or reference points?
Ross Compton: Being a brand with no history or previous design language meant that I was able to bring my own style into the brand image. As Atlis is a young brand I decided to come at it from a fresh approach. I wanted to make sure the companies ideals and ethos were promoted throughout the design language, while at the same time developing an image that is recognizable and new. I reviewed all competitor brands as well as emerging electric vehicle brands to analyze their individual designs and style so I could map out a language for us that didn’t sit within the same themes. I didn’t want to create a standard truck, it had to have interesting elements that perhaps hadn’t been seen much on vehicles in this segment. Finally, above all, it needed to be instantly recognizable as an Atlis product.
The modern EV market is young and there’s something of an expectation for these vehicles to look sci-fi and unconventional. What’s your take on this and were you worried about designing too far beyond what the traditional expectations of what a pickup truck should look like?
Ross Compton: I think this expectation is weird. There is no real reason why gas-powered vehicles can’t adopt this new style too. It seems that brands go out of their way to emphasize that this vehicle is electric, that it’s the future, etc. This ironically has already created a stereotype in electric vehicle design — it’s like you need to be weird or different to fully qualify for the electric badge. I’ve personally noticed the overuse of blue accents to denote clean energy.
Overall, I have no real issue with this as we are seeing much more variety within market segments. But I do think we are sacrificing something. The soul and joy in vehicle design begin at the tip of the designer’s pen and it feels as if the excitement is being forced into modern electric vehicle designs. There are a few exceptions to this but already we are seeing a growing market with new styles that just look as if they are trying too hard. Maybe companies are too hung up on this idea of being different or looking unique? Or maybe the market is so new, this trial and error is exactly what’s needed?
Combine this with the pickup truck market and you have a melting pot of expectations that simply don’t mix. That is where I wanted the Atlis truck to shine. We are a company of truck owners, so we know what we love and hate in truck design. We are also a company of electric vehicle owners/enthusiasts, and again we know what appeals to us and what doesn’t.
The truck first and foremost needed to be a proper work vehicle. It could look like anything, so long as it embodied that tough and ‘ready for everything’ attitude. Once you take that ethos the traditional element behind the design naturally starts to creep in. You are creating designs that are pushing the boundaries without spilling over into a territory where neither camp likes it. I found that the designs were all very aggressively styled, with an imposing presence. But this was also mixing with a newer design language thanks to the truck’s innovative nature. The result is something that I hope appeals to both camps — with some elements displaying traditional truck styling, and other areas pushing the expectation of what a truck could look like.
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Major automakers have large studios staffed with hundreds of people working often for years on developing a new model. Can you describe the way the Atlis pickup was developed? Was it along the lines of a typical pipeline, sketches, models, prototype, or a different workflow?
Ross Compton: Major automakers have masses of people who by and large, aren’t personally invested in what they are creating. Yes, of course they care about what their product looks like and how it functions, but the personal investment is lacking. Unless you are high up enough to be seen, you aren’t going to be heard. That is where we differ as we can use the size of our team as an advantage. We are all in this together and every member of the team has their name tagged on many areas of the truck. This means that while our workflow occasionally differs from the typical, the overall workflow is relatively left unchanged.
The first stages were very typical, sketches and more sketches exploring different avenues. The beauty about having a smaller team is that everyone can give their own ideas or opinions. I wanted to make sure that I gathered as much as I could in terms of feedback, so we all had our say in the process. During the sketching stage this was invaluable.
The next stages followed a typical path of refinement, model making and more refinement. Because we are always looking for new technology to stay at the cutting edge, the design is influenced and adapted accordingly. This evolution continues even now, if on a smaller scale as we edge towards to final prototype.
What were some of the biggest problems you identified with current pickup trucks? Does Atlis introduce any innovative features to address these issues?
Ross Compton: Being able to truly work out of your tuck seems to be an issue within the market. A major innovative feature of the Atlis truck is its massive front cargo area. Fully equipped with power points and enough space for tools, shopping or luggage. It gives tradespeople the opportunity to literally work out of their vehicle. I don’t think any other pickup truck can offer that the way we can.
Current pickup trucks in large do not feel special either. You must buy the top of the range model to see a real difference. I wanted the Atlis to feel special and unique — for every owner, not just the special few that have deep enough pockets. Because of this the interior has been created to make the driver and passengers feel relaxed in a premium environment. The dash has a floating design to create a spacious feel. The soft touch materials that coat the dash and touch points on the door panel help to deliver comfort and give a greater feel of quality.
The premium nature doesn’t stop there, with a large touch screen in the center, mostly all buttons are found on the screen — with two customizable dials left underneath to help with quick select functions. The steering wheel is flanked either side by a further two screens, showing the live video feed from the side cameras. All of this comes together to make a visually clean dash, without a bare aesthetic.
For a long time, mainstream automakers viewed Tesla as a fringe company that didn’t have much chance to survive. Now many of them are racing to bring their own electric vehicles to market to catch up. Do you feel pressure to get the Atlis pickup into production quickly to get ahead of Tesla, Rivian and Ford?
Mark Hanchett: The argument that first-to-market is super important is valid to a certain point, but when I look at the truck market as a whole, passenger car ownership and driving yourself somewhere, that is going to change significantly over the coming years as autonomous vehicles take hold, as subsidized Uber-like services start to bring the cost of ride-sharing down. You’re going to see a shift towards certain individuals or certain demographics of people don’t necessarily want to own a car anymore. They may shift to just purely ride-sharing. But the one thing that will never go away is the work truck and the necessity to have that utility vehicle there, and that’s why we’re focused on that is because that’s the one segment of the market that is really … it may shift in form, in terms of it may not look like a pickup truck in 10 years, but the task that it needs to accomplish will exist probably forever, so it makes sense to go after one of these markets that’s long-lasting.
In terms of competition that’s out there, if you have Rivian, they’re going after the adventure market, if you have Tesla, we should always be conscious of what Tesla’s going to do. They’ll probably do something that is really cool. They’ll do something that is super fast, great acceleration, great range, but it fits within a certain market segment that really is common to their Model S, Model X, and Model 3 ownership. It’s a little bit on the higher end, a little bit more on the luxury side of things.
We’re aiming for more of the utility aspect of it, that market, and getting things done and coming in at a cost standpoint and capability standpoint that makes sense for that particular market. With Ford and GM and potentially even Toyota doing something as well, you should always be conscious of them, but for the big OEMs to make that shift, for them to shift from their gas and diesel vehicles today to electric, that’s going to be a very long process, so there’s still an opportunity there, even if we’re not first. If we come out with a very compelling product, if we come out with the right product, then we will still win. First-to-market doesn’t always win, but the right product will always win, and that’s not just the truck, it’s the ecosystem that lives in. It’s the entirety of that ownership experience.
You’re developing your own electric drive platform as well, can you describe what design and engineering advantages that offers?
Mark Hanchett: From an architecture standpoint, our entire vehicle system is modular, which means our XP platform, it has a complete sub-drive system that is independently operational, steering, braking, drive motors, suspension. All this stuff is contained within an assembly, that when we load it into whatever vehicle configuration we have, it’s purely plug-and-play. We wanted to make sure that this thing could grow to the size of an RV, it could shrink to the size of a mid-sized truck, and we can do so in a modular system where we can build these submodules that can be simply just plug-and-play, dropped in.
We’re building the vehicle in a way that you should be able to fix or replace anything on the side of the road. It’s a modular platform, and when I say that, we try to avoid the marketing gimmicks … we don’t want to say it’s modular in terms of hey, we could redesign it and use some of the motor components in a longer platform or something like that. No, it’s truly modular in the sense that if we wanted to build an RV, all we would have to do is take the base core structure and design that to be 40 feet long and we could plug in our drive system and suspension system in the back, either in a single axle or tandem axle configuration. We could plug it in up front and then we could, once we make that frame longer, we can basically plug in battery modules to add whatever specific capacity you need.
We have a tremendous amount of interest of from individuals wanting to take older model trucks, vans, or even their own custom body … we’ve got a gentleman in the Midwest that’s building custom farm vehicles, that wants to basically take our platform and then drop his tube frame, you know, rugged body on top of it and use it on farms and sell it to some of the local farms that are there. We’re all for that. The most interesting thing is that some of the greatest ideas and some of the best ideas don’t come from within an organization. They typically come from without, where people have a completely unique perspective on what’s needed. We want to be the company that helps that happen.
You’ve chosen a crowdfunding path to sustain Atlis Motor Vehicles. Can you talk about the approach and how successful it has been for developing a product?
Mark Hanchett: The first one that we did outside of personal investments, it was a regulation CF campaign, which is basically a regulation crowdfunding campaign to raise equity for the company, which means individuals buy common stock shares of the company. It’s not necessarily like a Kickstarter campaign where you may put a deposit down on a product or you may buy a product outright and then hope that it comes to market afterwards. This is a little bit different in that we are offering individuals, and primarily our customer base, the opportunity to own a piece of Atlis motor vehicles, to share in the success that we have. That’s something that was super important, especially early on, where we were looking at, okay, are people really going to be interested in this? How do we gauge that?
I come from a different background, I think, than most founders, where I spent 10 years of my life developing products, programs, and ecosystems that changed the world in the law enforcement space, and I’m applying some of those principles here to this particular market. But I don’t come from a wealthy background. I’m a more humble person. I don’t necessarily come from those connections, but what this regulation crowdfunding allowed us to do is actually go out there and connect with the people and the customers and give them the opportunity to participate in this. I think that’s super important in terms of the message of what we’re trying to do. This isn’t about raising massive amounts of funding and getting rich. This is about building a product that is customer-centric. This is about building a company that is customer-centric. That’s why every ownership model that we built is coming from the customer back and saying what are the pain points that they have and how can we solve that and then how can we build a product or a set of products that are centered on solving those problems?
What do you think design geeks will find particularly interesting about the Atlis pickup?
Ross Compton: I really hope my fellow geeks will feel some way about the design, good or bad. I wanted a reaction. In part I have got one, we receive many awesome comments every day about how great people think the truck looks, as well as comments that flat out hate it. This is exactly what I wanted. For us not to go under the radar.
There are a few areas that I hope interests’ people. First, the hood bulge. I was looking over older trucks and loved the brash promotion of brand identity through massive labels/logos. Usually done via big text in the massive chrome front grill, this element to me screams pickup truck and classic American design. So, I wanted to encapsulate this but bring it forward into our truck (that doesn’t have a massive front grill for text to sit in). By creating this small bulge for the Atlis logo to be placed on, it was my way of promoting ourselves and paying homage to cars of the past. Hood ornaments are a rare thing now and would be too retro for this truck, as well as delicate, but by pushing out the surface it created a strong place holder for our logo and gave a small nod to the past.
These small areas of interest are dotted over the vehicle. Another is in the side vent. We have airflow coming from the front two intakes and then being pushed through the sides. These vents are formed by making the body work look as if it’s overlapping itself. The vent is quite industrial, there is no fanfare to it by way of chrome surrounds, but it sits there clearly on the side. It again takes conventional areas and just tweaks them to suit our ethos and deliver something a little different.
My last example would be the front and rear lights. I love designs that look simple until you step closer and realize just how much detail is going on. This is the case for the lights. Taking the taillight as an example – on the surface it seems like a standard bar light configuration with a ‘C’ running light in the centre. But as you get closer you can see small jewel-like lights within a chrome casing in the centre of the ‘C’. The Atlis text is stamped inside here too, accompanying the jewels that look to almost line the back of the chrome housing.
When are we likely to see the first electric Atlis XT pickup trucks on the road?
Mark Hanchett: We would like to get a hundred trucks into customers’ hands by the end of next year, December 2020. That’s the challenge. It’s one that we’re obviously marching towards. It’s one that I think is super important. We’re not making big promises of 10,000 – 20,000 – 30,000 vehicles a year. I think our current reservation list is close to 11,000 vehicles currently, and we’re not making big promises on the number that we’re going to produce a week or anything like that. We’re very realistic in the fact that we’ll build a hundred, then we’ll build a thousand, then we’ll continuously scale from there and scale as fast as we can.
All images provided by Atlis Motor Vehicles