With the Airo EV, Heatherwick Studio envisions “a car that actively does good”

Led by Thomas Heatherwick, the British studio famous for its architectural works unveils its first car design with Airo for IM Motors, as an electric vehicle that filters pollution as it moves.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Dec 05, 2022

An electric vehicle concept that claims to eat pollution as its drives and offers itself as a multi-functional room to relax, when at rest, as a lounge on wheels—the lithe Airo EV conceptualised for Chinese car makers IM Motors by Heatherwick Studio, is “a car that actively does something good.” Interestingly, this fresh automobile design would be the studio’s first, led by Thomas Heatherwick, who admits that they are not conventional car designers—after all, Heatherwick is better known for their contemporary architectural projects such as the giant honeycomb staircase structure called the Vessel, the mushrooming Little Island in New York, as well as the sprawling Google Bay View Campus in California.

  • Airo is designed by Heatherwick Studio for IM Motors, as a car that eats pollution | Airo EV by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    Airo is designed by Heatherwick Studio for IM Motors, as a car that eats pollution Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • The Airo electric car will be fitted with a HEPA – high-efficiency particulate air – filtering system that will clean pollution | Airo EV by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    The Airo electric car will be fitted with a HEPA – high-efficiency particulate air – filtering system that will clean pollution Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

The renowned British designer relays, “When IM invited us to design a new car, it was an amazing thing to start thinking about because we are not conventional car designers. The idea of an all-electric car with autonomous ability felt thrilling to work on. It didn’t feel enough, just to think about how to make a car, that yes, was electric, and wasn’t doing bad—we wondered if it could do more than that.”

The car’s interior layout can transform from a conventional car into a mobile room, and switch to work, game, film or dining modes | Airo EV by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
The car’s interior layout can transform from a conventional car into a mobile room, and switch to work, game, film or dining modes Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

Year after year, it takes less time to cross countries and seas, but more time to get to the office, and getting there sustainably is a Goliathan route. It comes as no revelation that the future is electric, and Airo’s concept, as a design-driven solution, feeds into this idea of future mobility, as a car for tomorrow. We inhabit a world where most megacities like Shanghai, Delhi, or London, combat alarming levels of pollution and vehicular congestion. EV designs are monumental solutions that acknowledge this problem, by virtue of them being good for the environment, since they are emission-free.

Heatherwick Studio unveiled Airo’s prototype at the Goodwood Festival of Speed 2021 | Airo EV by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Heatherwick Studio unveiled Airo’s prototype at the Goodwood Festival of Speed 2021 Image: © Yanli Tao

Expected to go into production sometime next year, Airo is a fully electric car with autonomous and driver-controlled modes. Going further in its sustainability credentials of producing no fossil fuel pollutants, the automotive design is also engineered with a state-of-the-art HEPA (high-efficiency particulate absorbing filter) filtering system, that actively cleans the air from the pollution of other vehicles as it passes through its under-carriage, leaving the air around it cleaner. “Airo isn’t simply another electric car that doesn’t pollute the air. Instead, using the latest HEPA-filter technology, it goes further by also vacuuming-up pollutants from other cars as it drives along,” says Heatherwick. The studio unveiled Airo's prototype in the Future Lab at the Shanghai Expo and Goodwood Festival of Speed last year, to mixed responses.

The exterior of the car features striated lines and ridges, marking the air passing it by | Airo EV by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
The exterior of the car features striated lines and ridges, marking the air passing it by Image: © Yanli Tao

The design and architecture studio also makes use of the empty car space when it is idle, by turning it into a usable room. “Designed to simultaneously address the global space shortage, Airo is also a multi-functional room with extra space for dining, working, gaming or even sleeping. As a new room for our lives, with a changing view, Airo is a car intended to transport us to a cleaner and better future”, he adds.

Heatherwick Studio worked with artisans in the British city of Coventry to model a full-scale version of the Airo car out of clay Video: © @officialheatherwickstudio

Apart from the EV’s design, the London-based firm has also conceived a design for a sleek, barely intrusive charging station for IM Motors (an electric vehicle joint venture between Chinese automobile manufacturer SAIC Motor and Chinese technology companies Zhangjiang Hi-Tech and Alibaba Group, which stands for ‘Intelligence in Motion’), imagined to become part of the city’s infrastructural fabric. Created from industrial materials such as weathered steel, "the charging station aims to become part of the urban fabric for decades to come; it has a retractable wire, and an ergonomic handle for easy connection to electric vehicles,” they explain.

Airo is designed with autonomous and driver-controlled modes | Airo EV by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Airo is designed with autonomous and driver-controlled modes Image: © Yanli Tao

According to Heatherwick, most cars and vehicles across the world are only driven 10 per cent of their life cycle— for the rest of the 90 per cent, these stay parked on roads and streets, contributing to almost 1.4 billion sqm of unused real estate. This led to the design team imagining ideas of how the car could be adjusted to transform into a “meaningful space” when not in transit.

The conventional forward driving seats can be swiveled to face the ones at the back | Airo EV by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
The conventional forward driving seats can be swiveled to face the ones at the back Image: © Yanli Tao

The resulting interiors of the sinuous electric vehicle thus, have been imagined as customisable and luxurious and can be configured into multiple functional spaces, transforming Airo into a moving or stationary room, as a space to relax, a space to spend time in, even when not being driven. The seats inside can be rotated from their conventional, forward-facing driving position, to face each other, for social activities such as dining on the four-leaf table, which neatly folds away to transform the space into a lounge. A foldaway screen can also turn Airo’s interior into a gaming pod or a movie room, and post that, the contoured seats can fully recline to become a spacious double bed. Through the latest technology, the fully glazed roof becomes opaque on command, ensuring total privacy for users inside.

Airo’s interiors can be configured into a multi-purpose room | Airo EV by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Airo’s interiors can be configured into a multi-purpose room Image: © Yanli Tao

Stuart Wood, partner and group leader at Heatherwick Studio commented on their widely anticipated design, "Transportation and mobility are not only going through a technological revolution but also a social one. There’s a new ethically conscious generation who expect a car to do so much more than just offer transportation from one place to another; they want a device that fulfils and expands upon their functional needs and meets their values. Until now, the functionality of a car has been narrowly defined as a fuel and space-guzzling luxury that none of us can afford to continue. We conceived Airo to re-imagine the lifestyle-car-environment balance."

Apart from the EV’s design, Heatherwick Studio also designed a sleek charging station for IM Motors, to become part of the city’s infrastructure | Airo EV by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
Apart from the EV’s design, Heatherwick Studio also designed a sleek charging station for IM Motors, to become part of the city’s infrastructure Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

Adjustability and adaptability are features perpetually explored and witnessed across Heatherwick Studio's oeuvre spanning over two decades, such as the Sponge chair design whose ridge details guarantee the user does not slide off. “We have been looking at how can take our mindset from the world of furniture, into the inside of a car,” says the British designer. With the electric car, the multi-faceted studio wondered if they could mark the air moving across it—this gave birth to the striated lines and ridges running smoothly along Airo’s lower perimeter and front, giving it its characteristic, textural and almost futuristic look.

The Airo EV is fitted with sliding doors | Airo EV by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
The Airo EV is fitted with sliding doors Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

The colours, tones, materials and textures employed for the industrial design were considered crucial to set the mood and atmosphere, to enable a fresh and intuitive experience for the user. Hinge doors are swapped with double ones, to lean into the most functional design, sliding so that they do not bash into anything or anyone while in usage.  

"We are excited to spend the next couple of years developing this concept car into a production car that can be available for people and be a tool for people’s lives,” Heatherwick continues.

  • A foldaway screen can also turn Airo’s interior into a gaming pod or a movie room | Airo EV by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    A foldaway screen can also turn Airo’s interior into a gaming pod or a movie room Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio
  • The contoured seats can fully recline to become a spacious double bed for sleeping mode | Airo EV by Heatherwick Studio | STIRworld
    The contoured seats can fully recline to become a spacious double bed for sleeping mode Image: Courtesy of Heatherwick Studio

Considering the massive degrees of pollution encountered in congested urban developments, Airo’s claim of gobbling up pollution remains to be subjectively scrutinised, as well as the extent of the difference it can truly make. Despite making a strong case, the idea of the sustainable design is noble, but would it significantly contribute to filtering and lowering pollution, is a multi-layered question still unanswered. How much volume of air could it clean, seeing as how only a finite percentage can pass through the car while being driven? We cannot wait to see what lies in store for the future of sustainable mobility, which ultimately does depend on radical, problem-solving concepts and credible models such as Airo.

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