That misspelled name

“So, could you tell me about the name, Canoo?”

Three weeks ago, I typed the address of a new EV startup called Canoo into Google Maps. Canoo? That strange name was the first thing I was going to ask about when I got there.

Pulling up to a surprisingly large, two-story building in Torrance, it took a while to find an empty spot. But inside, I was quickly greeted by Canoo’s CEO, Ulrich Kranz, a slight, wiry man in his sixties who speaks with a precise, German accent. After a quick tour downstairs, I followed him up a narrow staircase, and at the top, swerved left into a meeting room. I glanced to my right as we did—and was startled by the scene: a giant room of people seated at several long curvy tables, all, staring at monitors and stirring mice.

Pulling up a chair across from Kranz, I asked “Ah, how many people are working here?” (That question about their name would now be number two)

“About 300”

Three hundred people have been working on a futuristic electric car 5.5 miles from our office—and I didn’t know about it? Actually, I’d already heard of Canoo through a friend and knew something was up but pictured a two-guys-in-a-warehouse scenario. Not this sophisticated beehive of an automotive skunkworks.

“So, could you tell me about the name Canoo?”

“We considered many names, but Canoo has a connotation of moving effortlessly, like flowing down a stream in a boat.” If you’re a traditional high-performance enthusiast, you’re holding up a clove of garlic right now. But if you’re intrigued by what’s new and creative on wheels, here’s a whopper of an example.

What is the Canoo EV?

When Ulrich Kranz describes his electric car as having a skateboard platform, he really means it. Walking me around its exposed skeleton, he pointed out the rear, 300-hp motor, its rear-wheel steering, fully electric front steering (not just power assisted), its very short, compact suspension, and holding it all together, the slab-like 80 kW-hr battery pack composed of 2,170-type cells (like the Model 3) for an estimated 250-mile range. None of it is higher than your knee. It’s so obsessively integrated, in fact, that the chassis doubles as the battery casing, and the whole skateboard so unified it could drive by itself. It’s a return to the automobile’s early days when a premium car company would build a drivable chassis and then ship it to a coachbuilder who would artfully fashion a magnificent body on top.

A hundred years later, Canoo’s initial body is a sleek space-pod that winks with cues from 1960s VW minivans (including pop-open, skylight windows—yay!) Climb in and its aft interior is a wrap-around vista-view greenhouse lounge that includes a pegboard for notes. Up front, it’s a NASA fever dream, with an ankle-height lower windshield, and a dashboard that’s condensed into a simple cabin-spanning bar that succinctly displays essential digital information. It’s a thumb-in-eye to the Byton’s panoramic screen; instead, just attach your familiar IOS or Android phone or tablet. The Canoo leaves the choice of secondary displays to you.

If they aren’t reinventing the display, they certainly are, the wheel. Or steering wheel, which seems to be floating in space, attached only to the cross-bar-dash and doesn’t have a column—it’s 100 percent electric. OK, calm-down, Infiniti is already selling its Direct Adaptive Steering (electric, with a traditional steering column back-up engaged by a clutch); the Canoo’s safety net is a redundant electrical circuit. We’re going to see more of this as autonomy approaches, but for now, the Canoo has seven cameras, five radars and 12 ultrasonic sensors for Level 2+ driver assistance. And after watching Tesla’s turmoil trying to manufacture the Model 3, the Canoo will be manufactured by an experienced, Michigan-based contract manufacturer who’s been working with Kranz’ team every step of the way to avoid snafus.

Subscription Instead of Ownership:

“When you subscribe, you think differently about a car — now the value is defined by the user benefit. “ 

You’ve probably read about how we’re now living in the non-owned, shared-stuff, subscription economy. It’s already all around us in the car world, from Uber and Lyft ride-hailing to micro-renting like Zipcar and Turo. But attempts to introduce car-subscription alongside car-buying and car-leasing (by far the number one method) haven’t found much traction.

Nevertheless, that’s the business model that Kranz is staking Canoo on. His pitch is simple: you pay an initiation fee and then an all-encompassing monthly subscription, which may include “registration, maintenance, insurance management, and charging—all from a single app.” And you can cancel it at any time. Kranz points to Fair (whose website describes its used-car subscriptions as longer than a rental but without being locked into multi-year lease) as the right way to go. But Kranz has an original twist: unlike Fair, Canoo’s vehicles are not only new, customers will always own them. So they’ll never be exposed to the market, meaning the market can’t ascribe a huge initial depreciation. By decoupling from the market, Canoo can calculate your subscription cost based on their actual costs over a longer, 10-year-plus service life. I.e., it’ll be cheaper.

Richard Kim: A guy you’ve never heard of is designing your future

Like the Canoo’s looks? Don’t? Then either cheer or hiss 38-year old lead designer Richard Kim. Walking around it, I smiled as it took me back to a think-tank discussion I had at Art Center in Pasadena a couple years ago with design students and their transportation instructors as we tried to image what the rumored ‘Apple Car‘ might look like. “It’ll be a sleek minivan with both its ends looking alike” somebody said “as if it could go in either direction.” Here’s the Canoo with that very bi-directional ambiguity.

Richard Kim has been going in many directions himself lately—and his collage of EV projects paint a portrait of the most fertile and influential vision in modern individual mobility. During his years at BMW, he was responsible for the i8 Spyder concept and the i3 (with its much-copied, EV circuit-board sideview). Then the still-gorgeous Faraday Future FF91 (its fin-shaped C-pillar now echoes from the second-gen Nissan Leaf to the Volvo XC40) and its Chinese corporate cousin, LeEco’s LeSee. And today, this abstract and minimalist Conoo. While Franz Von Holzhausen’s handsomely aging Tesla Model S remains the gold standard of EV sculpture, even he admitted his aim was simply to create a great-looking car, not an EV re-imagination. It’s Richard Kim’s busy pencil-hand that’s been busily sketching those. He’s the guy you’ve never heard of who’s designing your future

What’s with ex-BMW i execs playing musical chairs at EV startups?

It’s getting noticeable. Everywhere you turn, there’s a musical chairs of ex-BMW “i” engineers leading EV start-ups. And when you ask how they got here, they all say the same thing: when BMW pressed the pause button on “Project I,” they’d already become so hooked on moving fast and designing for the future, they couldn’t go back. Dr. Carsten Breitfeld was responsible for the i8 program before joining Daniel Kirchert (ex-Infiniti and BMW Brilliance) to found China’s Byton. Then, after a stint at another Chinese EV startup, Iconiq Motors, Breitfeld today has the Sisyphean job of saving California’s ever-foundering Faraday Future. And now, here’s Kranz—also ex-BMW i—who became Faraday’s CTO, then acrimoniously left along with CFO Stefan Krause (ex-BMW i) to found Canoo, which is designed by Richard Kim (ex-BMW i).

One of the big jobs of new BMW CEO Oliver Zipse is reversing this EV exodus.

A coda about the Canoo name: “You mean … a boat?”

A few days after my Torrance visit, I had an unlikely encounter with Elon Musk, and out of curiosity, asked him what he thought of the Canoo.

“Canoe?” he asked. “You mean … a boat?”, he scrunched his eyebrows and looked confused.

“The EV start-up” I answered. He stared, eyebrows scrunching more. It still rang no bell in the Musk mind.

I guess juggling cars, rocket ships, boring giant holes, and wiring cyborg brains is enough to think about. But six miles away from our conversation, Kranz’s 300-person team—many of them, ex-Tesla employees—were at that moment beavering away to soon get his attention.

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