Peter Arnell’s Star Wars-Inspired Electric Car

The launch: This is a lousy time to market a car, but maybe a futuristic-looking electric one that sells for $12,500 will do better? Chrysler, which of course has a laundry list of existential threats these days, sure hopes so. The company, with the help of Peter “Tropicana” Arnell, is positioning the vehicle as a starter car for urbanites or a second set of wheels for families looking for a great value in a tough economy. The company will start taking orders on Earth Day (April 22) and ship them out this fall. Chrysler is clearly kicking the tires on the whole green vehicle phenomenon—it’s only producing 25,000-40,000 units in the first year. By way of comparison, the top-selling vehicle of 2008, the Ford F-Series truck, moved 515,513 units.

The design: The idea was to “break out the company so that it had its own culture,” said Arnell, who also holds the title of chief innovation officer at Chrysler. “This company needed a new culture that’s reflective on the attitude of this vehicle.” (Originally called the GEM Peapod, Chrysler has spun Peapod Mobility off as a separate company.) Naturally, design was the first way Peapod could communicate this departure. “You design your marketing attitude into the design; instead of utilizing advertising or communications to send the message, you build it into the product,” Arnell said. “The product itself speaks, it has a language, it talks.” (Though not like Knight Rider, we should point out.)

Everything from a Life magazine photograph of a white-helmeted Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon and Japanese  bullet trains to the Star Troopers from Arnell’s favorite film, Star Wars. “Those were all designed for great sight lines and aerodynamics,” Arnell said. His first sketch came from watching turtles in a pond. “There was something about the protective language,” he said. “I knew [the Peapod’s] attitude would be high-tech meets humanity; iPod is clinical and sterile, although still beautiful. I [thought of the Peapod] as an appliance more than a car because you plug this in. At the same time, I was influenced by the animal world.”

Think big:
While the Peapod looks cozy, it’s designed to be comfy. Imagine a tiny circus car that opens and a bunch of clowns emerge. It’s thin-membraned because of the aluminum structure. Most car seats are padded, but Peapod’s are more like office chairs—they’re less than one-16th of an inch thick. “They’re ergonomic,” Arnell said. “In most cars, you [adjust] the seat. These move with you.”

TWA Terminal, meet the iPod:
“It’s futuristic, but it’s also got a charm that harks back to European vehicles of the 1950s and ’60s,” Arnell said of the aesthetic. “Where the Prius was designed awkwardly to make a statement by Toyota in order for you to know it’s not a vehicle—it’s a hybrid—this has been the same kind of journey.”