The Airo EV, a car that thinks it’s a room and is designed by Heatherwick Studio, is not the only surprise from Auto Shanghai 2021, a show that bucks several trends. For a start the event actually happened, after a year of pandemic-induced motor show cancellations that might end up reshaping the industry’s attitude towards the cost and effort of staging quite so many shows a year.

Auto Shanghai also saw a number of credible, interesting and advanced EV models from Chinese firms such as BYD, Xpeng, Hengchi, and Zeekr, highlighting how the country’s motor industry is gaining a march on its older, more established Western counterparts. Nevertheless, there were also several important new electric cars, including the Mercedes-Benz EQB, BMW iX and Genesis Electrified G80, together with near-future concepts like Honda’s e:prototype, Toyota’s bZ4X and the Audi A6 e-tron concept.

The end result is that Shanghai is now the pre-eminent global showcase for new EVs. Add in quirky designs like the Beetle-inspired Punk Cat from Great Wall sub-brand Ora, and Auto Shanghai is also stealing the Tokyo Motor Show’s traditional role as the centre of automotive eccentricity. 

Airo concept from IM Motors, designed by Heatherwick Studio
Heatherwick Studio’s Airo concept opens up to a spacious interior

Step inside the Heatherwick Studio Airo EV

Auto Shanghai also saw the world debut of Heatherwick Studio’s new Airo electric car, designed for IM Motors. The latter is yet another Chinese EV brand, a collaboration between SAIC Motor, Zhangjiang Hi-Tech and e-commerce giant Alibaba. IM stands for ‘Intelligence in Motion’, and the company launched with two production cars, the sleek Intelligent Pure Electric Car and, unsurprisingly, an electric SUV. It also highlighted its collaboration with Thomas Heatherwick, whose studio has not only shaped the Airo concept, but also the company’s range of charging stations. 

Airo concept from IM Motors, designed by Heatherwick Studio
The ribbon-like body construction gives the Airo concept a flowing, friendly exterior

The electric car isn’t Heatherwick Studio’s first mobility project, but it highlights the team’s multidisciplinary, global approach, as well as the way that cars and architecture are starting to come together. The Airo is a compact urban vehicle that ticks all the tech boxes, from its electric powertrain to the inclusion of autonomous drive systems. The added bonus is an integral HEPA (high-efficiency particulate absorbing) filter system that’s designed to suck in local pollution and leave cleaner air in its wake. For smog-swathed megacities like Shanghai, the idea of an air-filtering automobile is perhaps too good to be true, but it points to Heatherwick’s boundless ambition and enthusiasm for design-driven solutions. 

The Airo is more than just a car. The interior layout is completely flexible and can transform from a conventional car into a mobile room, either a place to sit and work or game and watch films, dine around a table or even sleep. Once again, the studio is thinking outside the box, turning the wasted space of an idle car into a benefit; combine this with autonomous driving and the possibilities are endless. However, while Heatherwick describes this approach as a way to ‘simultaneously address the global space shortage’, the downside is that what might seem like a cute and convenient piece of functionality for some is already a low-quality way of life for many others, especially in densely populated cities. 

The interior of the Airo concept from IM Motors, designed by Heatherwick Studio
The multifunctional interior can be configured in a number of different ways, including as a dining room
The interior of the Airo concept from IM Motors, designed by Heatherwick Studio

A gaming mode is one interior possibility

The interior of the Airo concept from IM Motors, designed by Heatherwick Studio

The Airo interior can also be transformed into a bed 

The Airo’s ribbon-like bodywork is unlike any car on the market, wrapped around a compact, curvy and friendly-looking machine with sliding doors that open up onto that spacious interior. Heatherwick Studio has also designed IM Motors’ charging stations, organic, Triffid-like objects that sprout from the pavement to provide easily accessible power while taking up a minimum amount of space. Designed to be ‘part of the urban fabric for decades to come’, they acknowledge that infrastructure has to go hand in hand with new vehicles, even as the vehicles themselves start to blur into the built environment. §

Airo concept and charge station from IM Motors, designed by Heatherwick Studio
Heatherwick Studio’s Airo concept and charge station