Basic No-Frill EVs? Or Must All EVs Be Rolling Computers?

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The first time I drove a Tesla was when a friend let me drive his around for a bit. We met at a place that had both CHAdeMO and Tesla chargers, so my Nissan could charge pathetically slow while we looked at the Tesla. The first thing he did was show me the “car key.” The key (fob) for the car was literally a little car. Then he showed me all the bells and whistles that the car had. He showed me autopilot, he pulled it forward a few feet with summon, looked at the trip planner and showed me how ABRP was a little better, and the sound system.

After like 30 minutes of this, I asked, “How’s the acceleration? Can we go launch it?”

He gave me a confused look for a few seconds, and was like, “Oh, yeah, let’s go do that! Yeah, it’s really fast!”

As a nerd myself, I get being into all of the bells and whistles. A rolling computer that can do a lot of cool tricks is fun. But, if I was going to spend that much on a vehicle, it needs to be fast. Of course, it was — it’s a Tesla, after all. The electric torque is great, and unlike the LEAF, it keeps pulling hard after 40 MPH.

But this does show that there are two kinds of car people these days: gadget people and old school car people. I’m a bit of both, but I lean toward performance over the fancy features. Before I get into what I’d want to see, I want to explore some of the economic realities that make it unlikely.

The Economic Reality Behind This

Tesla chose to seriously enter the car market in the luxury segment for a good reason: luxury buyers could tolerate the high price of the vehicles. Most of the reason Teslas cost so much to build is the battery pack, but when the Model S costs anywhere from 2 to as many as 5 Toyota hybrids did in 2012, the car had better be more than just an EV.

This strategy has served the automotive industry well in the past. General Motors put the most advanced (and expensive) ICE engines in its Cadillac vehicles, but over the course of a few years the technology trickled down into the Buicks, Chevrolets, and Pontiacs. For example, in the 90s, the lower end brands still had pushrod valvetrains in iron blocks while the Cadillacs had dual overhead cam aluminum V8s. The premium brands from every automaker tend to do the same: introduce expensive new technologies for the luxury segment that can afford it, and then use the technology in cheaper vehicles once the price goes down.

Before going for big production numbers, Tesla tried to take a totally different approach. The first generation Tesla Roadster was going to keep costs low by using an existing chassis from Lotus. The thought was that by purchasing a “glider” or a “roller” from Lotus, they’d be able to add the electric drivetrain while not needing to spend the big bucks paying for their own chassis development. In theory, that was a good economic idea, but in practice, it didn’t work out. It turned out that the company would need a bunch of small changes to the chassis until it only had around 6% in common with the Lotus Elise.

The original Roadster wasn’t profitable, but it did get the idea of a real electric car out there and the lessons learned eventually led to the clean-sheet design of the Model S and X, and later the higher production and cheaper Model 3. The old strategy of using high-end luxury cars to get expensive tech off the ground worked.

Will Any Future Electric Vehicles Be Simple Again?

While battery prices have fallen, the rest of the bells and whistles are now cheaper, too. It doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to install a big touchscreen in a vehicle like it once did, and things like power door locks, power windows, and even pretty decent Linux-based infotainment are all a lot cheaper than they used to be.

What’s still expensive (and in progress) is ADAS systems. Autopilot is now included in every Tesla vehicle, but if you want something better, or want the upcoming Full Self Driving (FSD) features, you’ll need an extra $10,000 for the software. The fact that the company includes the needed Autopilot 3.0 computer in all new vehicles tells us how much the price of hardware has fallen while the price of developing cutting edge software hasn’t.

For this reason, we might never see another Tesla with a simple, no-frills interior like the first original roadster. It’s so cheap to add all the bells and whistles, and it has become what the public expects in a new vehicle. There just isn’t a lot of demand for an old school performance car that isn’t also a luxury vehicle.

At the same time, though, it’s not only nostalgia that leads people to want a truly minimalist vehicle. Even today, people strip out the niceties of a vehicle’s interior to save hundreds of pounds and improve track performance. Thus, there is still some demand for a vehicle pre-configured for the track instead of the street.

This leaves the question open: will Tesla deliver this, or will it eventually have to come from another manufacturer?

What I’d Like To See

While I know many readers would be completely uninterested in this, I’d like to see a basic, no-frills EV that focuses on handling and performance.

For the chassis, something like the Elise would work, but I’d prefer to start with a multi-material space frame like the Acura NSX has. This would be lighter, more rigid, and, most importantly, safer for a vehicle that’s low to the ground.

Instead of optimizing for interior roominess, I’d do more of what Audi did with the e-tron GT. By having more battery between the two seats and little or no battery under the seats themselves, the driver and passenger can be lower to the ground and not seated like they’re in a little SUV. This gives more of a grounded feel.

For the interior, I’d have only the very basics. Racing seats, a mostly bare floor and dash, and just a few gauges that give what a person needs for driving.

Finally, the vehicle could come either as a BEV or a plugin hybrid that’s even lighter and higher performing. Instead of a big, heavy piston engine, it could use a small turbine or a rotary for range extension or rapid charging between runs at the track. If used as a daily driver, it would rarely ever burn fossil fuels anyway.

But I know most readers wouldn’t want this, nor would most car buyers. Something like this would be a true niche product or even something I’d have to build myself as a one-off.

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1770 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba