Electric Car Adoption: Not Why You Think

In the past, I’ve written about both the lack of innovation in the auto industry and Tesla Motors. Researching Tesla revealed many things. The physical, technical, and practical advantages of electric versus internal combustion cars are plentiful and amazing.

Yes, I’m convinced that the transition to fully electric cars is indeed inevitable. But it won’t happen for the reasons most people think—and it has nothing to do with helping the environment, running out of oil, or making the world a better place. While those are valid arguments that are well-and-good for the media and proponents of such voltage-based transport tech, they will have little to do with the inevitable success of all-electric personal transportation in the United States.

nissan leaf for linkedinMuscle cars are among the least efficient, loudest, and most smog-producing vehicles on the road. Despite this, they remain the most popular and revered of all cars ever made. I’d kill for a 1963 C2 Corvette or a 1967 Camaro. I watch Supernatural with my daughters just so I can hear the hunky 1967 Chevy Impala’s modified engine through my home theater’s subwoofer.

I can understand muscle car fans wincing at the prospect of driving across town in a nearly silent all-electric vehicle. On the surface, it doesn’t sound tough or cool—which runs counter to the 20th century-spawned notion that cars help define our personalities and, ironically, individuality (think James Dean, Steve McQueen, and Vin Diesel).

Let Me Count the Reasons

Advocates of electric vehicles, often tree-hugging environmentalists, new age hippies, and science geeks, give us countless reasons why electric cars will replace their fossil fuel-guzzling predecessors (not the least of which is the inevitable disappearance of oil). Melting ice caps, serious long-term health ramifications, and the prosperity of our children and our children’s children are all used to make us feel guilty about driving our noisy, sluggish, gas-guzzling sedans and SUVs.

But let’s not fool ourselves. Consumers will decide if electric cars replace internal combustion models, not governments, advocacy groups, or even the media. Because for consumers, it’s all about cost. We might be concerned about rising carbon dioxide levels and climate change, but if an exhaust-emitting internal combustion car is less expensive than a clean all-electric model, consumers—especially middle class consumers—will almost always opt for the cheaper model. At least if we want to take a vacation now and again or send our kids to college.

When Tesla Motors releases its much-anticipated Model 3 in 2017 or 2018—assuming they can actually sell it for $35,000—Americas will do some basic math and realize that they can have a car with decent range (200-250 miles per charge), significantly more storage, zero internally produced noise, Porsche performance (the current Model S sedan is literally faster than a Porsche 911), and the satisfaction of knowing they aren’t creating greenhouse gasses in their own back yard. For about the cost of a nicely optioned Ford Taurus or Nissan Altima, folks will realize they can have so much more.

Huge Savings on Consumables

But that’s the hedonistic car lover’s side of the equation. It’s after they do the consumables math, i.e., add up the costs of fuel and maintenance, that Americans will flock to electric cars in droves. This is primarily because, by selling a $35,000 high-performance all-electric car, Tesla (and any other manufacturer) doesn’t simply match the price of a gasoline-powered vehicle in the short term. It beats it in the long term—by a wide margin. Unlike fossil fuel-powered vehicles, the more you drive an electric car, the cheaper it is to own.

No oil changes, only a few bucks to charge the batteries (instead of the $50-120 required to fill the tanks of conventional piston-pumping vehicles), and no more standing in 10 degree F weather to fill their tanks at gas stations will convince consumers that electric cars aren’t only cheaper, but that they’re also more convenient. And convenience is what Americans are all about. There’s a McDonald’s on every corner and even Pizza Hut has a drive-thru window for a reason.

tesla model s replacement for blogA Tesla Model S owner in Wisconsin reported that he “barely even noticed” any increase in his electric bill when analyzing it to calculate how much it was costing him on a monthly basis to recharge his sleek all-electric sedan. I realize that’s a somewhat ambiguous statement, but the next time you “barely notice” the monthly accumulated gasoline bills for your car, let me know. Significantly less expensive fuel, combined with almost non-existent maintenance costs, dramatically change the overall cost of ownership of an all-electric car like the Nissan Leaf or any of Tesla’s models.

As one Model S owner commented, you simply charge it at night and replace the tires.

Car Dealerships Suck

Despite America’s love of cars, for the average consumer, a visit to a car dealership is like a trip to the dentist or an IRS audit. We don’t like it, and for good reason. It’s a smarmy, hawksterish zone where contention runs high and trust runs low. It’s populated by clueless salespeople, gaudy signage, and loud, obnoxious commercials. Most car dealers are a cheesy exercise in financial obfuscation, cheap and predatory sales tactics, and—all too often—a gross lack of professionalism and honesty. Yes, Lexus, BMW, and others luxury brands have done a lot to counter the mostly skanky state of the dealership industry, especially those representing the big middle class brands like Chevy, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Chrysler, and Hyundai. But conventional car dealerships still suck.

During the next few years, two things will happen in the auto industry. First, a company like Tesla will produce an affordable, attractive, and performance-oriented all-electric vehicle with an acceptable range. Obviously, others will follow. Second, Americans will begin to perceive that they can save money by owning an all-electric vehicle.

Dramatically reduced fuel and maintenance costs will motivate consumers to jump on the electric bandwagon—sports car-like performance and gee-whiz technology will simply be the icing on the cake. Once consumers are buying electric cars as fast as they’ve been purchasing iPhones and iPads for the past few years, all auto manufacturers will embrace the approach. Electric sales will soon after outpace those of old school piston bangers with tail pipes.

In the end, it will be the savings and convenience that will convince Americans to get in bed with electric vehicles, not rescuing the environment or even the amazing performance. And if we get to avoid a trip to the dentist in the form of negotiating with sleazy dealership dorks who we despise—and don’t trust—all the better.

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Advertisements

Time for Tesla

The autumn announcement of new car models, in addition to my typical obsession with consumer technology, has recently produced a constant mental Venn diagram—with new cars in the left circle and consumer tech in the right. And in the middle, overlapping section of the diagram? Tesla Motors.

In a recent blog post, I kvetched about the lack of technical innovation in the auto industry. In reflection, I was referring only to the technical enhancements to personal transportation, such as Bluetooth, backup cameras, adaptive cruise control, and head-up displays. But what about the core drivetrain? When you consider the pace of improvement and innovation in industries like consumer electronics, entertainment, and computers, it’s amazing that all of our cars (even if you drive a Chevy Volt or a Toyota Prius) are simply leveraging an improved version of a 155-year-old technology: Internal combustion.

Let’s At Least Agree on This

Regardless of whether you’re Republican or Democrat or your stance on climate change, no one can argue that auto exhaust is good for the planet. If given the choice, I’d vote to exclude it from my community. And so would Elon Musk, the co-founder and CEO of electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors. In fact, Musk’s vision is for one of his other successful companies, residential solar power provider SolarCity, to provide clean, sustainable energy for our homes and for Tesla to offer a viable, affordable solution to consuming that clean energy for transportation.

tesla model s replacement for blog

Musk has faced roadblock after roadblock for his small offering of high-tech, sporty, and fully electric vehicles. Recently, car dealers and lawmakers across the country challenged him based on the fact that Tesla sells direct to consumers—not through dealerships. Old laws from a bygone era designed, ironically, to prevent monopolies are currently being leveraged to prohibit Tesla from selling its cars in all areas of the United States. Lazy car dealerships acclimated to purchasing local monopolies for their particular brand are apparently so intimidated by Tesla and its attractive electric tech that they have been taking legal action and calling on their country club cronies to help protect them from open market economies. Unfortunately, it seems that most car dealership owners are more talented at screaming “Discounts, discounts, discounts!” on the local FM radio station than taking on a fair fight. Apparently their wallets are bigger than their balls.

Combined with fuel costs hovering between $3.00 and $4.00 per gallon—and each of those gallons delivering an average of only 25 miles per gallon (according to 2013 data from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute)—the old way is feeling about as advanced as the paper and pencil that might have resided in the pocket of Henry Ford at the 1908 introduction of the Model T. When you compare these items with a modern smartphone, like an internet-connected iPhone 6 or the Samsung Galaxy S5, you get an idea of how far technology as a whole has evolved in American society. Holy crap. Henry Ford couldn’t have even imagined Angry Birds or Orange is the New Black.

Genesis

If the Model T was the foundation of the fossil fuel-propelled auto industry, then it is surely one of Tesla’s models or the Nissan Leaf that is the genesis of a new age of significantly more advanced and earth-friendly vehicles. Because of Musk’s own passion for cars—specifically those of the high-performance variety—we’ve learned that electric cars don’t have to be boring. As practical and decidedly high-tech as the Toyota Prius is, “sexy,” “sleek,” and “fast” are terms that typically don’t enter one’s mind when thinking of this vehicle from our friends in Japan. Let’s face it: If you have any lust for sportiness or curb appeal whatsoever, the Prius has always felt like a sacrifice, as if a middle-aged dot com hippy is, by driving down the road in one, symbolically stating, “I’m doing my part for the environment.”

elon musk for twitter 2

Musk has personally bootstrapped Tesla during the course of its relatively short existence, investing more than $75 million of his personal wealth. He spent his last $40 million (from the sale of his brainchild PayPal to eBay) to save the company from bankruptcy in 2007. Tesla now seems to be out of the woods in terms of its financial solvency. Investments from industry titans like Mercedes and Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in addition to a successful 2010 IPO, have helped keep Tesla alive and growing (the company reported profits for the first time in early 2013).

Putting us at 2014. Tesla is three years away from selling a $35,000 everyman’s version of its vaunted $80,000 Model S that will be called the Model 3. The Model S is the follow-on to Tesla’s first vehicle, the exotically sporty and expensive Roadster (hyped at its introduction by celeb customers like George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Arnold Schwarzenegger). Tesla has also broken ground on a battery plant outside Reno, dubbed the Gigafactory, a partnership between the company and Panasonic that will help make the Model 3 affordable for consumers and profitable for Tesla.

Musk has pointed out how market forces alone—especially given the heavy-handed lobbying and deep old-school pockets of the petroleum industry and car dealers—haven’t been enough to decrease the price of car batteries fast enough, enabling affordable electric vehicles. The Gigafactory, using leading-edge manufacturing processes, is purported by Musk to be the reason his company will be able to offer a fully electric car that competes on price with gas guzzlers from Detroit, Tokyo, and Seoul.

A Bit Toned Down

Musk is one of those once-in-a-generation entrepreneurs who truly stops you in your tracks when you consider everything he’s accomplished—and when you comprehend what he might do in the next decade or two (he’s only 43, after all). Unlike some of the more ego-driven and bombastic executives in Silicon Valley—like Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Microsoft’s (former) Steve Ballmer, and T-Mobile’s John Legere—Musk is a relatively humble founder and CEO. Not to be confused with his confidence, which is blowing-smoke-up-your-butt powerful.

However, given his accomplishments during the past few years, and his likely successes in the coming decades, it turns out he hasn’t been blowing smoke at all. Although The New York Times and Britain’s Top Gear TV show might have lost faith in his efforts, or even rigged some of their testing of his vehicles (claims made by Musk), the prospect of a Model 3 electric car for the masses before the end of the decade is all but certain.

So let’s cheer underdog Tesla Motors and its tenacious CEO Elon Musk for having the courage to challenge established players—be they car dealers or the big guys from Detroit. Porsche performance in a zero-emission car with leading edge technology, less expensive fuel than from fossils, and the quality and comfort of premium brands is an option that American consumers deserve. And clearly want.

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins

[See also the related blog posts Tesla Bigot: IADA’s Bruce Anderson, Tesla Test Drives: Responding to Bob, and Auto Industry: Slow on Tech Innovation.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.