In this article, I want to not only identify a problem standing in the way of EV sales growth, but also identify some solutions that manufacturers can look into. It’s not a problem EV manufacturers (including “legacy” auto companies) really face today, but as EVs move from the early adopter phase and into the wider market, the audience they’re selling to will change.
Climbing Up The Bell Curve & Down The Market
Let’s take a look at where we stand on this bell curve. Experimenters, garage tinkerers, and corporations have been building one-off EVs for decades, often conversions of a car that originally left the factory with a combustion engine. These are the innovators. Once mass production started (with the Tesla Roadster, early Nissan LEAF, and Model S as good examples), we entered the early adopter phase. Now, we’re in the early adopter phase trying to gain the early majority.
As it stands right now, any EV that isn’t complete junk or massively overpriced will find a buyer. There are tons of people who aren’t interested in buying an EV or can’t afford one yet, but the relatively limited production of EVs means you don’t need to please a big swath of the market to sell every EV that rolls off the assembly line. Right now, manufacturers don’t really need to worry about what the naysayers are saying, because they’re likely going to be in the late majority or among the laggards (assuming they don’t die of old age before we get there).
This situation where picky people don’t need to be accommodated is good for starting out because it means manufacturers can focus on their own needs more and on customer preferences less. If the EVs they make are too expensive, it’s OK. If they are a bit avant-garde and lack mainstream appeal for whatever reason, that’s not a big deal in 2023. Manufacturers can afford to get to those people later.
This is especially important considering the higher cost of batteries. Because they’re so expensive, EVs had to mostly start out in the luxury segment. Priorities for this segment include things like quietness, performance, comfort, and lots of bells and whistles. Tesla, as a company, wasn’t born in this segment (the Roadster wasn’t a luxury car), but the limited production sports car market isn’t where you build a big company and push the wider automotive market toward anything. So, Tesla had to jump into the lux-o-barge segment with the Model S, followed by the X.
As it has crawled down the market with the Model 3 and Model Y, the company has stayed in the luxury market that cars like the BMW 3 series live in. It’s still luxury, but we’re getting closer to the average car buying price. Other manufacturers have largely started their EV efforts out in this area or higher, with only a few cheaper vehicles with reasonable range, and the rest being heavily-compromised “compliance cars.”
You Can Take Tesla Out Of The Luxury Segment, But Can You Take The Luxury Segment Out Of Tesla & Follower Companies?
One of the big complaints I’ve seen on social media and in conversations with friends is that they feel like electric vehicles are “soulless.” To an EV enthusiast, this sounds silly, but we have to look at where people come from and not where we ourselves come from. To a luxury car buyer, a quiet car that’s powerful and luxurious is what excites us. We feel like that vehicle has “soul.” But, to somebody who grew up driving cars further down the market or who’s excited about ICE sports cars, a quiet and smooth vehicle isn’t exciting at all.
If something like the above is what you grew up with (I rode in a very similar Blazer as a kid), the minimalistic and clean interior of a Tesla might instead look like brutalism, and perhaps even look like something a cheapskate would design. The lack of noise might feel like you’ve been deprived of feedback and not given a luxury.
At present, most EVs live in the luxury space where minimalism, quiet, and smoothness is valued, but as EVs need to be sold in other markets, you’ll find that many people don’t want the luxury experience. Tesla will probably struggle to provide anything else, because that’s the market the company grew up in, but other manufacturers trying to follow Tesla’s lead will eventually encounter the same roadblock on the path to some parts of the market.
How Manufacturers Can Get Out Of The Luxury Trap & Give EVs More Soul
The good news is that EVs don’t have to be luxury cars that many buyers feel are “soulless” and “sterile.” It’s not only possible, but easy to provide that part of the market what they want so they can get into EVs.
Probably the first thing to embrace is noise. The inverters and other power electronics aren’t that quiet. The same is true for electric motors. The truth is that all of this makes not only a lot of sound, but something that sounds cool and futuristic. Here’s Formula E to drive the truth of this home:
The truth is that every EV makes noise like this, even the humble and quiet Nissan LEAF. But, manufacturers are so good at hiding the noise from drivers and passers by that you really need to put a microphone under the hood to hear it.
In the case of the LEAF, just opening up the little access door for the battery disconnect in the rear floor was enough to greatly increase the sound you hear in the cabin. Nobody wants to hear high-pitched sounds every drive, but having some sort of shutter system where the driver can select to be insulated from the sound or to hear it could make EVs feel a lot less soulless.
There are even ways to enhance the sound of EVs, like Saleen did with its take on the Tesla Model S:
You can learn more about how the improved the Model S here, but in short they engineered the final drive gears and differential for making some noise instead of aiming for silence. They also took measures to open up the soundproofing to let the sound out more.
The bottom line here is that EVs really aren’t quiet unless manufacturers want them to be, and many buyers in the future want the opposite. I mean, if whistle tips were able to gain popularity with ICE cars, people are going to want noisy EVs.
Another thing that is a lot easier than you might think would be to offer manual transmissions. This is how the current EV age got started, with many conversion projects built on a manual. So, it’s definitely not only possible, but easy to do. Plus, EVs can’t stall, so you don’t have to work the clutch the way you would with a manual ICE. This is not only good for off-roading (extra torque multiplication), but for efficiency on the highway. Most importantly, it gives drivers the extra engagement they want, which gives them some of the soul they’re looking for.
There are many other things manufacturers can do to help EVs appeal to people who aren’t luxury car buyers. More diversity in interior design is needed, not just copies of barren Tesla minimalism/brutalism. Retro-inspired EV designs can also be more fun and soulful. Respecting right to repair can make EVs more fun for hobbyists. Electric power doesn’t prevent any of this, and it’ll be needed to reach many buyers.
Finally, I’d suggest not obsessing over autonomous vehicles so much. While many early adopters are excited about autonomy, the “laggards” see all the talk of autonomous vehicles as “We’re going to take away your keys.” Manufacturers should develop autonomous vehicles, but they and the EV community needs to understand that there’s a significant portion of the population that simply won’t tolerate any effort to ban human driving or price it out of existence.
This can all be summed up in one sentence: give people what they love now, but powered by an electric motor.
Featured Image: Jeep’s Magneto 2.0 concept (an electric Jeep with a manual transmission). Image provided by Stellantis.
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