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Rebranding Electric Drive

Although EV and PHEV sales in the United States continue at a pace that is better than disappointing, the budding enthusiasm for electric drive of a few years ago seems to be fading.  Serious concerns about the cost effectiveness of using EV’s and PHEV’s to reduce petroleum consumption and the efficacy of using EV’s and PHEV’s to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (considering the source of the electricity they use) have steadily undermined enthusiasm for electric drive among those who view it largely as an environmental proposition.

The one bright spot in the EV industry, Tesla Motors, has taken a different approach to promoting EV’s.  In listening to conversations at dinner parties, I am struck by the reason that relatively well-off suburbanites want to buy a Model S:  They want to buy one because it is cool.  What makes it cool is that it is a high tech vehicle with a lot of high tech amenities.  The fact that the Model S is an electric vehicle is part of what makes the vehicle high tech.  But the fact that the Model S is an electric vehicle is not itself the selling point.  I suspect that few of the suburban housewives I hear talking rhapsodically about the Model S would ever buy an EV just to own an EV.

It may be that Elon Musk has duplicated Steve Jobs’ feat of turning an item of technology into an item of fashion.  But more likely Elon has simply rediscovered why people buy a car: because they develop an emotional attachment to it.

There is a lesson in Tesla’s success that the rest of the electric drive industry should learn:  Selling EV’s and PHEV’s may be less about selling environmental benefits than about selling a sexy and exciting new technology.

If sexy and high tech is the way it needs to go, the EV industry needs to get serious about building that image.  Fortunately, it has a lot to work with.  EV’s really do have a lot more torque than comparably powered ICE’s and their lower center of gravity makes for better handling and a better driving experience.  The fact that EV’s are also cleaner and quieter is a bonus, though perhaps not the principal point.

Promoting the new, sexy, high tech image of electric drive is something the EV industry needs to get behind.  The new FIA Formula E Championship racing series therefore bears consideration.  The Formula E championship features single-seater cars powered exclusively by electric energy. Commencing in September 2014 through to June 2015, the championship will compete on the streets of 10 of the world’s leading cities, including Beijing, Los Angeles and London.

Motor races, particularly those that take place on city streets (think Monaco Grand Prix), are expensive, high risk events.  But they are also high visibility events that convey an image of sex, power and high technology.  In the case of Formula E, it might also take on a nationalistic element (i.e., can an American-made battery (after receiving billions of dollars of federal government support) outperform one made in China, Japan or Korea?).

The future of electric drive may lie in playing to its inherent performance advantages over internal combustion engines and its emotional appeal as an exciting new technology.  If so, companies other than Tesla need to step up and start driving that message home with consumers.

Photo Credit: Rebranding Electric Drive/shutterstock

Content Discussion

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on February 24, 2014

James,

I partially agree with you, in that I don’t believe that environmental benefits are going to be the ultimate reason that people choose to purchase electric vehicles.  I have always found the ecological argument for EV’s to be overstated anyway.

The issue for consumers is price and performance.  Do they have a better driving experience and/or do they save money by switching from an ICE car to an EV?

You make the point about the instant torque and superior handling, this seems to be true from all the reports I am hearing from EV owners.  I have never driven one so I can not comment from experience, but I do know that high performance, high horsepower machines across many industries use electric drive trains, and they don’t do it for ecological reasons.  Freight train locomotives, big ships, drilling rigs, all these machines use electric motors because they offer precise control and incredible horsepower.  Yes these machines are generally attached to diesel or gas generators to provide the electricity, but most of the electrical grid is powered by fossil fuels as well.  I am confident that EV cars can provide the same type of superior driving performance while eliminating messy engine oil and transmissions.

Price wise, considering that electricity is roughly 20% the cost of gasoline, miles driven that avoid the use of gasoline save the driver substantial amounts of money.  Say your daily commute from home to the office is under 20 miles and can be completely run off the batteries and if you can charge at both locations then the driver can almost entirely avoid the use of fuel and that is a huge saving.  This is where I believe the compelling argument for EV’s can be made.

I don’t think that marketing EV’s as a luxury good is a recipe for mass market penetration.  I appreciate what Tesla has been able to achieve, and as a market innovator they have to go extra lengths to get traction in the market and I applaud their success.  But luxury goods are by nature niche markets.  Tesla recognizes this as well so it will be interesting to see how their next gen, lower cost models do.

I also hold firm to the idea that EV’s should be defined by the electric drive train and not by being solely battery powered.  Limiting the definition of EV to the batteries is an ideological distinction, not an engineering distinction.  PHEV’s still offer substantial fuel savings and driving performance gains without sacrificing the ability to perform in high horsepower and long distance applications.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on February 24, 2014

James, I don’t believe Elon Musk set out to make a cool car as much as to make a successful one, realizing all along selling a $100,000 car that wasn’t sexy would be simply making his marketing job  harder.  All of these considerations have been dictated by one factor – the price of lithium batteries – and by the time their price drops by half (as it’s predicted to do by 2020) I’m sure Musk will be selling the equivalent of an electric Volkswagen “Beetle”.

EVs hardly have to depend on looks to be successful. The largest-seliing EV in the country, the Nissan Leaf, may be the dumpiest-looking ride you can drop $35,000 on – yet consumers are doing it. That speaks to the fact that for so many other reasons they’re just great cars. No maintenance, no oil, no trips to the gas station, inexpensive, quiet (you can actually enjoy classical music while driving)…

As a society, one of the most important reasons to support EVs is that we can make them cleaner by addressing point sources of energy instead of monitoring the emissions of millions of individual vehicles. This has profound implications for the future, as our current fleet of internal combustion engines get older – and dirtier.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on February 24, 2014

“Serious concerns about the cost effectiveness of using EV’s and PHEV’s….have steadily undermined enthusiasm for electric drive…”  Recently purchased a Volt, the reduced energy cost of my daily commute pays 2/3 of the biweekly payment.  My CO2 footprint calculating electricity coming from 100% coal, even though the vast majority of local power is either hydro or biomass, is reduced by 1/3.  Using the local generation mix it is reduced to about 28% of what it was with my old Matrix (not a very large car).  Yes there are places where it is worse but cleaner energy is coming online and worse case it is still better than the alternative!