The Joy Factor: A New Approach to Hybrid Car Design

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By Jenny Xie / Published by Dwell
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Presented by Toyota Prius
The chief designer of Toyota Prius and Prius Prime gives us his spin on creating the hybrid car of the future.

As a child, before he knew that "designer" existed as a vocation, Shunsaku Kodama was fascinated by the elegance of everyday forms. "I used to imagine the mechanisms behind things like stationery, appliances, industrial goods, and cars, exploring the reason for their shape, and if it was beautiful I was attracted to it," he says. It was the same meditative approach to form and function that led him to automotive design, where the relatively long product cycle allows for a profound understanding of each part—body, seats, dashboard gauges—and how it contributes to the whole. "I felt joy in making products with a beautiful shape turn into something with purpose," he says.

Shunsaku Kodama, now stationed in Japan, worked at the Calty Design Research facilities in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from 2006 to 2009 before becoming the chief designer of Prius and Prius Prime in 2011.

Shunsaku Kodama, now stationed in Japan, worked at the Calty Design Research facilities in Ann Arbor, Michigan, from 2006 to 2009 before becoming the chief designer of Prius and Prius Prime in 2011.

Kodama's favorite aspect of Prius is the side view. "You can recognize the evolution from previous Prius models, and it’s also easy to distinguish the aim and differentiation between each hybrid or plugged-in hybrid vehicle model," he says. Toyota's 2016 Prius has a lower hood and character lines that sweep along the sides, creating an sleek, athletic shape.

Kodama's favorite aspect of Prius is the side view. "You can recognize the evolution from previous Prius models, and it’s also easy to distinguish the aim and differentiation between each hybrid or plugged-in hybrid vehicle model," he says. Toyota's 2016 Prius has a lower hood and character lines that sweep along the sides, creating an sleek, athletic shape.

Kodama, who joined the Toyota Motor Corporation in 1992, is the chief designer for Toyota's Prius and 2017 Prius Prime. Each new model bears many of Prius's iconic traits while boasting further innovations in fuel efficiency, electric driving range, and handling. Notably, the 2016 Prius is the first vehicle to benefit from Toyota's New Global Architecture (TNGA), which lowers the center of gravity and introduces a more rigid shell for a more precise driving experience. "An unchanged pursuit for aerodynamic performance was relentlessly continued while additionally achieving the ‘driving pleasure’ that a car should have," says Kodama. "The end product is something on a completely different level from the previous Prius models."

TNGA offers more protection to drivers thanks to a powerful upper body designed to distribute the impact of a frontal collision. The new Prius is also equipped with Toyota Safety Sense (TSS), an array of safety technologies that includes a Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Full-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and Automatic High Beams.

TNGA offers more protection to drivers thanks to a powerful upper body designed to distribute the impact of a frontal collision. The new Prius is also equipped with Toyota Safety Sense (TSS), an array of safety technologies that includes a Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Full-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and Automatic High Beams.

Both Prius and Prius Prime are powered by Hybrid Synergy Drive® technology, which makes smart decisions about when to switch between electric and gasoline power, and when to combine the two. With a larger battery pack, Prius Prime is projected to run 22 miles in electric vehicle (EV) mode* and have over 600 miles of total range**, putting literal distance between it and the previous Prius plug-in hybrid. This allows drivers to rely mostly on EV mode for day-to-day commutes. Because the engine isn’t running, the experience is quiet and tranquil, giving the impression of "infinite acceleration," as Kodama puts it. "I believe [customers] feel the joy of driving on the highway as if they were gliding along at high speed. I also wanted to show this joy in the design."

Prius Prime has a large acrylic grille that masks the radiator cooling openings; when cooling isn't necessary, a flap closes for better aerodynamics. The inspiration for the front view was Toyota's Mirai, creating a cohesive look across product lines.

Prius Prime has a large acrylic grille that masks the radiator cooling openings; when cooling isn't necessary, a flap closes for better aerodynamics. The inspiration for the front view was Toyota's Mirai, creating a cohesive look across product lines.

"In the time to come, I think that car design will not be limited to the automotive industry, but also tightly intertwined with the design of things like furniture, appliances, and architecture." -Kodama

The cockpit of the new Prius has a full-color, high-resolution instrument panel on dual, 4.2-inch multimedia screens. The head-up display projects data and alerts on the windscreen, minimizing the need to take your eyes off the road.

The cockpit of the new Prius has a full-color, high-resolution instrument panel on dual, 4.2-inch multimedia screens. The head-up display projects data and alerts on the windscreen, minimizing the need to take your eyes off the road.

"Joy" is an element that comes up often when discussing design with Kodama, but he tempers the emotional with the logical. According to him, what many people don’t know about automotive design is how much the analytical left brain works in tandem with the freethinking right brain. Designers must double as engineers, cultivating an intimate understanding of the product in order to aesthetically present its value. Kodama takes a philosophical approach to this balance: "How much of the engineering should be visible in the design? Or should the function be deeply concealed?" Viewed from the side, both Prius and Prius Prime have a distinctive triangle silhouette with a tapered front and end, presenting an aerodynamic horizontal axis.

A rear double wishbone suspension helps drivers stay in tune with the road for better control, and a more rigid framework improves responsiveness whether it be on a meandering mountain drive or a country highway.

A rear double wishbone suspension helps drivers stay in tune with the road for better control, and a more rigid framework improves responsiveness whether it be on a meandering mountain drive or a country highway.

As sustainability becomes an ever more pressing issue, Kodama predicts that eco-friendly cars will be the norm rather than the exception, and that they will be integrated into the way we live. "In the time to come, I think that car design will not be limited to the automotive industry, but also tightly intertwined with the design of things like furniture, appliances, and architecture," he says. "I would like to do my best to ensure that the car goes from being a single ‘thing’ to something that contributes to people’s lifestyles."

*Calculations based on 2017 Prius Prime manufacturer's projected EPA-estimated EV Mode range of up to 22 miles when vehicle is fully charged. Excludes driving conditions. Actual mileage traveled in electric mode will vary on factors such as traffic, road and weather conditions, vehicle maintenance, driving speed and cargo load.

**2017 Prius Prime manufacturer's projected EPA-estimated range rating when fully charged and with a full tank of gas. Excludes driving conditions. Actual mileage will vary.