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Published on November 24th, 2013 | by Zachary Shahan

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Perceptions of Electric Cars Are So Off, + Thanks To Tesla For Flipping People’s Perceptions



tesla model x back

The positive effect Tesla Motors has had on the electric car industry is immeasurable. For various superficial reasons, many people have developed ideas of electric cars that are totally off base. Tesla’s vehicles bust those misperceptions wide open. And other electric vehicles are now following suit.

Electric cars have the potential for ridiculous torque and power. An electric car designed for such a purpose can crush any gasmobile off the line. Yet, many people think of electric cars as weak and “girly” for some reason. Thankfully, Tesla has changed this… even if the effect has not necessarily spread to some people’s overall perceptions of electric cars.

I was recently visiting my sister in NYC. Oddly, despite electric cars being one of the key things I write about, she was completely unaware of the electric cars that are on the market today. She thought electric cars were only small and unsafe (not knowing of a single model). This is rather insane, given that electric cars have the potential to be much safer than gasmobiles thanks to all the crumple space they can put in and a lower center of gravity (as you probably know, the Tesla Model S got the highest safety rating of any car ever rated in North America), and they of course don’t have to be small. There are now over a dozen electric cars on the US market, many of which are of an average size or larger.

My sister hadn’t actually heard of (or remembered hearing of) Tesla Motors, so she knew nothing about it. While that is something most of our readers probably cannot even fathom — I can no longer put myself in those shoes no matter how hard I try — that is probably the case with the majority of Americans.

So, I gave my sister a quick summary of the electric cars currently on the market and made sure to point out some big Tesla facts. Afterwards, she decided that she wanted a Tesla Model X. She then mentioned to some of her coworkers (she manages a restaurant in NYC) that she wanted an electric car. One of the guys she worked with (presumably a bit of a gearhead) said something along the lines of, “electric cars are so girly.” She responded that she didn’t want just any electric car but a Tesla Model X. He then responded something along the lines of, “Oh, Tesla, well that’s different. Tesla cars are great.” Presumably, Teslas are macho enough for him. (Note: I wasn’t around during this conversation, so I’m simply paraphrasing what I was told.)

My sister didn’t really understand how electric cars (even non-Teslas) could be “girly” — that the typecasting didn’t make any sense. That was also my response when I ran into this stereotype years ago. I have now gotten used to it and seem to have generally forgotten my initial bewilderment at it, but it still doesn’t make any sense — how can an entire type of car technology be “girly” (whatever that is)? I’m happy my sister reminded me how much of a “huh?” reaction I used to have to that stereotype.

It is interesting, though, that people like her coworker hold two completely different views of electric cars and Tesla vehicles (which are, of course, electric). What a contradiction. I would never picture someone really considering the Chevy Volt a “girly car.” The Chevy Spark EV is an electric car with excellent pickup/torque that many a power-loving man would love to drive. And plenty of non-girly guys love their Nissan Leafs, Renault Fluence ZEsFord Fusion PHEVsHonda Fit EVs, etc, etc.

But the initial concept gearheads and semi-gearheads seem to have of electric cars is the same as my sister’s male coworker. For example, I recently read a story in which the Tesla Model S flipped another such guy’s perception of electric cars. The intro to the article, by David Goodboy, is as follows:

Recently, I had the privilege of test-driving a new Tesla (Nasdaq: TSLA) electric sports car.

Growing up in the gearhead culture of Pittsburgh, I wasn’t expecting to be impressed. My uncle’s business sponsored a drag-racing team, and I spent many Sunday afternoons watching from the sidelines as an elementary school student. If you know anything about drag racing, you know the vehicles are fast, loud and extremely powerful.

This experience cemented in my mind the notion that if a car wasn’t loud, it couldn’t be powerful. Combine this experience with being a bit of a car nut myself, and there was no way that Tesla founder Elon Musk’s cars — with their relatively tiny engines and massive hype — were going to impress me.

Man, was I wrong.

From the second I sat in the driver’s seat, all my negative thoughts went out the window. The experience was mind-blowing. It was like sitting in the ideal environment, if a little sparse on the comfort side. It made every other car I had ever experienced seem like relics of the past. A giant iPad-like screen takes center stage with every needed metric and information being displayed in a clear, faultless fashion. Talk about the cool factor.

Needless to say, the performance was pure perfection. Acceleration, braking, cornering and just simple driving was better than anything I’d experienced. This completely changed my perception of what makes a car great.


Tesla is clearly flipping people’s assumptions on their heads, as are other electric cars (if perhaps to a smaller degree). This will likely continue for a long time. I’m sure many, many people have the same false impression of electric cars that these two guys had (and apparently can still have that impression, when not not talking about Tesla vehicles). Furthermore, most people still don’t even know Tesla Motors exists, and many probably don’t even realize electric cars are on the market. As I wrote the other day, driving an electric car for the first time, most people will realize they’re totally bloody awesome, and they’ll never want to switch back to gasmobiles.

Here on CleanTechnica, I think that most of us are convinced that electric cars are the future, and that they are even primed to blow up and take over the industry, similar to how smartphones took over the cell phone industry, and how cell phones took over the phone industry, and how laptops and tablets took over the computer industry. Yet, we clearly have a long way to go in terms of exposing people to electric cars and dismantling their false impressions of the vehicles. It’s sometimes daunting and sometimes disappointing, but it’s also exciting and makes me happy to be in the industry I’m in. I will definitely continue trying to find ways to connect with “normal” people, uneducated people, and members of my own family! I hope that you will do the same. Revolution happens through word of mouth (which these days may means clicks on the computer).

For related stories, keep an eye on our frequently updated Tesla tag.

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About the Author

is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy for the past four years or so. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the Network Manager for their parent organization – Important Media – and he's the Owner/Founder of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.



  • Cassina Tarsia

    Excellent article … one of the best I have read! What blows me away is what you said about most people not even hearing about Tesla. One thing that you didn’t mention was that many people see their car as simply transportation and don’t really care about how it works, and I think that these are the people with their heads in the sand. Oh, well. In time, things will change and those of us who do care will make the difference.

  • Peter Forint

    Tesla is the game changer for the whole industry.

    But, if you look at TCO (total cost of ownership), most of today’s pure EVs make great second cars for families, as the only limitations they really have are driving range and “refuel time”. (Except for the Tesla S, of course.)

    Even if you’re investigating ICE (gas) cars for the second car, in most cases you can get away with the smallest, most fuel efficient model that car’s primary driver because 95% of the time the driver is the only occupant and daily commuting and running errands are well within the range.

    2010 Prius Driver

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Agreed.
      A lot of research out there on why we don’t make rational purchasing decisions. I should probably dig into that. :D

  • btdt86

    Finally, someone who actually knows what he’s talking about here with this article !! There’s been so much garbage spewed out there by the electric haters, that I was beginning to be concerned as to whether there was anyone left who actually sees what’s happening to the transportation industry not only right now today, but for the future as well , and I might add, to the definite benefit of the entire planet !! Yeah, yeah, I’m fully aware that those who fill their pockets with oil money will relentlessly attack electrics with every breath they can muster, but surely even they can see what’s just over the horizon now. Frankly, about all this shrill negativity, especially about Tesla, spewing around the internet has done for me, is strengthen my knowledge that Tesla is indeed the safest car on the planet, bar none, and I want one even more than I did before the naysayers were desperately trying to use the “fire” stories to bring down Tesla. Being an SUV Guy, I’ll have to wait for the Model X, but I’ll be careful to sell off my current ride while the “oil burner’ patriots still want to buy and drive them, and no, I don’t own any shares in Tesla.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Thank You. :D I actually went from not caring about cars at all a few years ago to becoming a strong EV enthusiast. EVs are the future of the automobile as far as I can tell — why wouldn’t they be? The only matter is delay caused by misinformation and ignorance… and fossil fuel subsidies.

      Such better cars, and Tesla is king of the hill. Even conventional auto journalists get that. It’s just the thoughtless (and perhaps too-time-pressed) conventional media and populous that really drops they ball here. But they do drop it hard…

      • AegysLTS

        Me too! I was never into cars at all(yes I’m a guy) until I read about Better Place, then I read about Tesla….and now I’m an EV nuthead….

        • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

          :D

  • Matt

    Part of the problem in the perception of electric cars is the exterior design and peripheral things. I have a 2013 Leaf and like driving it, but does it really need to make that cute little beeping noise when I turn it on? Can you imagine a Dodge Ram making that sort of noise when you turn it on?

    • Bob_Wallace

      Perhaps you could go to your local car audio shop and have them splice in the sound of the MGM lion.

      Heck, mount some external speakers and play Ferrari sounds….

      • Matt

        Or how about just no sound.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      They’ve definitely targeted a certain demographic. Given the great torque of EVs, though, I think they missed the mark. But may be coming around…

  • alanolson270

    I hope your sister enjoyed her visit to planet Earth and enjoys her trip back to her home planet. Talk about ignorance!! Never heard of Tesla? This may be a fabricated circumstance by the author. Go Elon!

    • Bob_Wallace

      Well, when it comes to cars and car awareness, NYC is sort of a different planet. It’s one of the few places in the US that owning a car can be both quite difficult and unnecessary.

      (I really doubt Zach fabricated anything.)

      • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

        Indeed, iirc, less than 50% of the population owns a car in NYC. It is a different world.

        And, for sure, I’m not a fan of fabrication.

        • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

          Actually, why would I ever want to fabricate such a thing anyway. I’m on a top 20 list with Obama, Elon Musk, and others for my influence on fuel economy matters, yet my sister doesn’t know Tesla Motors or a single electric car on the market! That’s embarrassing. And was a bit of a blow to me. Questioned even admitting it! But I thought there was an important message there. :D

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Not fabricated at all. Within certain circles (cars, investing), Tesla is well known. Outside of it, you’d be surprised how many people have no idea what Tesla is.

      You also have to consider where people spend most of their time. If they (like my sister) work full time and go to school, they probably don’t consume a lot of media, and what they consumer can more and more just be stuff in particular niche fields that they are passionate about. Same goes for busy parents, passionate enthusiasts of other topics, and so on.

      I’d challenge you to go out on the street and asked a bunch of people what Tesla is. (Of course, if you’re in California or Norway, you’ll get more positive results.) :D

      • Motoring

        Better yet, why don’t you ask Jay Leno to do it as a segment of his ‘Jay Walkers?’ It would probably come off a lot better/more professionally, higher laugh value and reach a broader audience, of whom might be left grasping for their tablet to look up how to change a coil in a Tesla ;)

        • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

          Great idea! :D

      • alanolson270

        Thanks for the reply ZS. Carry on!

        • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

          Thank You. And I do think it is super hard for us to realize how many people are unaware of Tesla and the EVs currently on the market. But I got hit in the face with that reality, so hope the sharing was helpful. :D

  • Guy

    This is the reason that guy said electric cars are girly. A chevy VOLT might have a little bit of power, but it is in the same sort of class as a minivan, or some other car that might perform pretty well, but isn’t SEXY. If the car isn’t sexy, it also can be considered not really masculine.

    Most car companies tried to assume, wrongly, that if you build an electric car, which was sort of a geek-mobile (and still is for most people), you need to make it cost-conscious and appeal to that market. You have to have a safe car, and the people will be sold on how “green” it is. But that’s not why a lot of people want cars.

    The niche with Tesla was not only to make it knock your socks off, but also to be sexy enough to drive it in the first place. You can’t convince someone to switch from their Mustang to a minivan just like you can’t switch them from a Dodge Charger to a Chevy Volt.

    But you can convince them to like, or LOVE a Tesla.

    It’s not electric car versus ICE, it’s more sexy car with performance versus non-sexy cars with mediocre or poor performance, which is what the electric car market was FLOODED with until Tesla took a stand.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Well argued.

    • Chris_in_Raleigh

      Also, since people generally act in their own self-interest, manufacturers would do better to market the huge savings in fuel and maintenance than the environmental benefit.

      My Nissan Leaf says “Zero Emission” on the back. It should say “Zero Gas”. Nowhere does it even say “Electric”.

      To get rid of the “girly” image, the car should flash the word “Electric” in neon lights on the trunk as I leave others in the dust at a stoplight. :-)

      • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

        Love it. Completely agree on that first point/suggestion, and think the second one would also be cool. :D

  • randygrenier

    Conspiracy theory: Big Petrol is brainwashing people.

    • A Real Libertarian

      Conspiracy theory: Al Capone isn’t a legitimate antiques dealer.

    • Jouni Valkonen

      Elon Musk will eat Big Petrol for a lunch!

      • A Real Libertarian

        I feel I should remind people that if Elon Musk was hit by lightning tomorrow and Tesla went bankrupt electric cars would still quickly become dominant.

        So, Big Oil keep hammering away at Tesla! If you manage to bring them down in a hail of propaganda, electric cars will definably go away forever and your credibility and money broke ass totally won’t be curbed stomped by the next three dozen companies in line or anything!

  • Lynne Whelden

    Perhaps another reason why electrics are thought of as “girly” is that (I suppose) guys who like to tinker on cars (you know, lift the hood, change the plugs, adjust the carb, drain the oil, replace the fan belt, etc.) won’t be as likely to do that. I mean, I’m sure there are some components they can switch out or replace. But I imagine looking at what’s “under the hood” would come as a complete shock to most grease monkeys.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Good point… and what will they do with their time then?

  • StefanoR99

    Tesla has shown that unfortunately for electric cars to succeed, they have to beat gas powered cars on every benchmark.

    The “gearhead” mentioned in the interview probably drives a mundane sedan with horrible performance, like most of us in the real world driving Camrys etc. In order to get people to switch to electric cars, it must have the same performance as a Mercedes AMG, Audi RS or BMW M… Thankfully Tesla provided such a car.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Exactly. Well said. It’s just lucky/good that EVs can live up to that challenge. But, indeed, until people drive an EV, they are not going to realize that a comparatively priced EV (lifetime costs) would probably kick the ass of the vehicle they are driving.

    • Inquisitive

      …so you’ve driven one? Just wondering.

  • Jouni Valkonen

    There is so much to learn about electric vehicles for everyone, even for those who follow EV markets daily. We have hardly scratched the surface. By now electric cars could dominate the luxury car segment (over ­$50k), but somehow there is not created the demand and supply for high quality plug in vehicles. And Tesla Model S has been the only Plug-in vehicle that is purposely made better than ICE competitors.

    It is sad that Tesla is supply limited and it cannot ramp up production fast. Tesla could sell globally I think about 200 000 Model S annually.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      I completely agree. I got a ton out of the recent EVS27 event, and hoping to share a dozen or so articles from that. Also hoping to get to a lot more EV events in the coming year. Only got a taste there. :D

      We should have a monthly “International Plug In Day” until EVs are mainstream. :D

  • AegysLTS

    So when are you getting a Tesla?…:)

    • Jouni Valkonen

      I think that Tesla vehicles will be always high end cars. But electric vehicles are probably cheaper and more practical in every price category around 2020 to 2025.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      I live in the city center of a European city and work from home, so I have almost no need for a vehicle of any type, not even a bike! However, if I did need a car in a few years, I’d probably get the upcoming Tesla Model E, Nissan Leaf, BMW i3, or Renault Zoe… hard to make any real guess without knowing what I’d need it for, my financial situation in a few years, etc.

  • Matt

    For most people the only electric car they have driven is a golf cart.

    • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

      True.

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