Propelled by the spirit of the Space Age and the Jet Age, car manufacturers of the 1950s aspired to not just speed and power, but also beauty—the iconic automobiles of the period are still beloved by aficionados for the cool curves and clean lines that often drew direct inspiration from the jet planes and spacecrafts that were probing new frontiers of exploration. It was also the Atomic Age, and as nuclear technology developed, engineers even dreamed up concept cars that might one day safely harness nuclear energy.
The nuclear-powered car never came to pass, but the dream of finding a source of clean, sustainable energy to fuel our travels has persisted well into the 21st century. Today, the answer to that dream increasingly seems to be found in the electric vehicle (EV). Some might say we are living in the eve of the EV Age—in 2017, over 1.2 million of such vehicles were sold globally, a 58 per cent increase from 2016.
With EVs representing just 1.3 per cent of total global new passenger vehicle sales, traditional internal combustion engine cars still dominate the market. Still, if you are a glass-half-full kind of person, that simply means the room for EV growth is massive.
(Related: Yes, Singapore Has Our Very Own Supercar)
“The future is electric... it’s not a matter of if, but when.”
Or as Singapore start-up Vanda Electrics posits: “The future is electric”. CEO Larissa Tan explains, “We are at a stage now in the automotive industry where we are on the cusp of a revolution. I don’t think there’s a doubt now that things are moving in the direction of EVs; it’s not a matter of if, but when.
“In the 1950s, there were a lot of technological development for the combustion engine, and a lot of new materials that allowed for the design of different car shapes. We are at that phase now where battery technology is concerned. This is a tipping point. I think you’re going to see a lot more activity within this industry, and many new players from around the world bringing fresh perspectives and a lot of innovation.”
Vanda Electrics, of course, is a case in point. The idea for this two-year-old EV company and the electric hypercar that it wanted to make had actually been floating around for around 20 years, Larissa reveals.
“But it was only recently that technology caught up with what we wanted to do.”
Around 2012, the hypercar dream began germinating again, and the result, named Dendrobium, finally debuted at the 2017 Geneva Motor Show. “That went really well,” Larissa recalls. “We attracted a lot of press and interest, and the Dendrobium was hailed as one of the top concept cars at the show.”
Subsequently, the hypercar was whisked off to show at Top Marques Monaco and England’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. It was most recently showcased here at the National Museum as part of Singapore Design Week 2018.
“This project has completely achieved its purpose,” says Larissa, who worked in banking and marketing before joining Vanda Electrics. “We wanted to bring worldwide recognition to Singapore, to the company, to the team of Singaporeans behind this car, and it has done that. Everyone now knows that Singapore has an electric car brand.”
To be more specific, they now know that Singapore has an electric car brand that has verve and nerve, and in a world where established brands and start-ups are all vying for a slice of the EV market, carving out that distinct identity is no small advantage. There is no forgetting the Dendrobium once you see it. Named after an orchid species native to Singapore, the hypercar is designed by Vanda Electrics’ Singapore team.
The company then engaged the UK’s Williams Advanced Engineering as an engineering and technical partner. The latter is part of the Williams Group that owns the illustrious Formula One team, and is renowned for its engineering excellence in adapting racing technology for commercial applications.
With its composite monocoque chassis, carbon-fibre bodywork, and a planned top speed of 320km/h, the car’s motorsport influences are clearly visible. Its unique look is also the result of the fresh perspectives that a new player to the scene can bring. “A lot of people said they hadn’t seen this floating teardrop shape before,” Larissa points out.
“Everything is geared towards the driver’s experience. For example, a lot of these cars have a big lip at the side, so getting in and out is difficult. Ours is designed to be easy to get in and out of, there’s a finesse and elegance to it. It’s not just about how nice the car looks. If you’re driving up to an event, you want to be able to get out of the car elegantly.”
True to its name, nature-inspired elements abound in the Dendrobium. Its roof and doors open in synchronicity to mimic the shape of a fully bloomed orchid, its curves are modelled after valleys, its hazard lights shaped like waterfalls, honeycomb patterns mark the air vents and grilles, and the tapered rear is even reminiscent of a barbed insect.
And yet, by some strange alchemy, this car looks like something flung out of space—it exudes an intriguingly alien glamour. Perhaps that is the point.
“In terms of design and shape, this denotes what the future of the electric car can look like,” Larissa believes. “We still have this notion that electric cars are maybe not so nice‑looking. But a lot of us are at this stage in life where we’re used to good design, and wanting to save the world doesn’t mean we have to compromise on the other things that we like. This is what the Dendrobium signifies.”
“This is the perfect country for implementing test-bed projects, because we’re small and efficient, with very good infrastructure and regulations.”
Larissa has a knack for making bold declarations in a disarmingly understated manner, which means their boldness can take a while to sink in. The stance that environmental responsibility and aesthetic pleasures are not mutually exclusive is, in fact, no less audacious at this moment in time than the pronouncement that EVs are the future.
In contrast to the 1950s—a decade buoyed by optimism about the possibilities of technology—today’s push for sustainable energy is driven in no small part by anxiety about the consequences of accelerating climate change. Perhaps these distinct cultural moods go some way towards explaining why that bygone era’s automobiles were as joyfully charming as today’s hybrids and EVs are, generally speaking, unassuming to the point of being self-effacing.
That is starting to change. Consumer fervour for Tesla’s sleek, sinuous EVs has spurred car manufacturers to develop more stylish electric cars that embody the message that you can look good while doing good. The Dendrobium, whose price tag will likely be in the seven-figure territory, makes a similar statement in the heightened key that is particularly suited to the luxury segment—virtue can be sexy.
In the Long Run
That vivid sense of personality also extends to Vanda Electrics’ two other EV products, the cheerful-looking Ant Truck and playful Motochimp scooter. With a payload of one tonne, the small but mighty Ant Truck “is perfect for cities with very narrow roads, and it can be configured for a wide range of uses”, Larissa shares. The company has gotten a lot of interest from the agriculture, industrial and utility sectors, and “being electric, it can also go into national parks and areas where they don’t allow combustion engine vehicles”. The vehicle has already been delivered to the Philippine market.
As for the highly Instagrammable Motochimp, “it’s meant to be a quirky, fun lifestyle product, and we want to take it to a level where it becomes an iconic urban transport vehicle”, she says. “The idea is, when you’re riding it, you’ll have the wind in your hair and look at the world in a different way.” It is already being sold in Japan, China and Singapore, and is currently accruing its cultural cachet via tie-ups with streetwear brand Subcrew and winning celebrity fans such as Singaporean singer JJ Lin. A second line of scooters is already in the works, as is a line of Motochimp accessories.
"We want to take it to a level where it becomes an iconic urban transport vehicle.”
(Related: Could The New Jaguar XJ Be All-Electric?)
In the meantime, Vanda Electrics is continuing to develop its fast-charging battery technology, working on new products, and it wants to eventually set up its own assembly line in Singapore, although Larissa concedes that is a very long‑term goal. “Right now, the strategy is to work with partners who already have certain capabilities and expertise rather than building everything ourselves. That would take too long, and in this business environment of innovation, it’s not the wisest thing to do. It’s more prudent to work with people who can hit the ground running.”
Even as Vanda Electrics eyes global partners and markets, Larissa believes more can be done right here in Singapore. “This is the perfect country for implementing test-bed projects, because we’re small and efficient, with very good infrastructure and regulations. We should be thinking about maintaining and improving our current air conditions and not waiting for them to deteriorate before we take action. We can be a leader in EV innovation and lead the way for other cities.”
Already, countries such as the UK, France, India and China have announced plans to curb or end fossil fuel cars within certain time frames. “The government can play a big part in pushing this at a national level,” she believes. “Why not come up with a target: in five years, we will do this; in 10 years, we will do this. So many countries have made a stand. Why can’t we?”
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