right, wrong and french- the future of the electric car

A glimpse of the future right now in 2011, are the new wave of electric or hybrid cars. Like the late great Steve Jobs achieved with the iPad, the car manufacturers of this world are attempting to move our vehicles from one age to the next. Where Jobs has moved us from the PC age, to the true home computing age, cars are about to move from using fossil fuels to much more environmentally friendly means of propulsion. The interesting thing here is that the car manufacturers seem to have got this all wrong, a lot like Microsoft did with tablet computing, they are applying their old business models and old engineering brains to this new problem. So I’d like to explain my point by putting each new hybrid/electric or whatever vehicle into right or wrong categories. So let’s start with wrong:

These cars just haven’t been designed with the correct attitude or market positioning in my opinion- the result is a product inferior in almost every way to a standard fossil fuel car. We can look to other product categories, such as computing with the ipad, or a more mature analogy of the flatscreen TV market. Here the manufacturers and innovators of plasma and LCD flat panel TVs absolutely did not aim to replace the average cheap tube TV. Remember we all had 21″ cheap brands, from Argos? Did Pioneer launch a decontented, basic functionality, 21″ plasma TV? No. Flatscreens entered the market at 42″ size, and they were not at all affordable. In fact the first one on sale was a Phillips 42″ which cost $15,000 in 1997 (Pioneer launched theirs later that year). People had literally never seen or heard of TVs as expensive and as large as these new generation. Early adopters with plenty of cash loved them, and “the big plasma” TV remains a status symbol, as the recent riots news stories were keen to remind us (despite them being cheap Argos items themselves now). So, early adopters are charged huge prices for extremely advanced technology- and the profits from these sales are used to push innovation and manufacturing into larger volumes and cheaper methods so that gradually prices dropped. We are now at a stage where all TVs are slim, LCD (an even more outrageously expensive technology at first) and larger than we ever had before. So why on earth do car manufacturers think they can immediately offer a car- with completely new technology, at the same price and to the same customers as current fossil fuel cars which they have spent the last 70+ years refining into a cost effect product? Complete madness, and the result is severely compromised vehicles using cheap underdeveloped technology solutions, which are still not cheap enough, so the manufacturers are forced to subsidise the true cost and make no profit at all! Here’s my list of the worst offenders.

Honda Insight: A rough, cheap feeling and sounding hybrid (according to journalists) which was designed with only one purpose- to undercut the price of the Toyota Prius. No thanks Honda- and you should know better (in fact your engineers do… see the FCX Clarity).

Nissan Leaf: A loss making marketing exercise aimed at making Nissan famous for introducing the first proper electric car. I owned a Nissan which beeped and warned me frantically when it’s petrol-filled fuel source reached only 100km range left. The Nissan Leaf’s total range when fully charged? 100km….  let’s hope they didn’t use the same dashboard warning software.

Reva G-Wiz: Not much to say about this- except it exploited a loophole in one particular city’s laws. Barely even a car, simply a plastic box with a close resemblance to those trolleys you can sit your kids in at the supermarket.

Mitsubishi i-Miev: Too narrow and unsafe looking- but a decent design effort for a city car, still aiming at being cheap rather than cool though. Marketing nightmare, I mean look at it? Who is it for?

Ok- so those guys got it wrong- but guess what, some manufacturers are getting it right and it is no accident that they are either totally new companies not tied down by traditional or restricted thinking (some have been started by total novices!), or they are companies that are so old they actually needed to think radically to stay alive and relevant. These companies are charging- quite rightly- a premium for this future technology. They are designing state-of-the-art transportation, that uses extreme engineering and new technologies and they are aiming those expensive and exciting products at rich and excitable new age consumers. The early adopters are of course very happy to lead the way, to show the world they are changing it with their wallet. These are the future success stories in the automotive arena- perhaps Telsa or even Fisker might in future become the Apple of cars? Who wants to bet that Tesla will be number 1 auto manufacturer in the world (currently Toyota) 25 years from now?

Tesla Model S: Not completely ground-breaking in exterior design, but it does have that modern electric car aesthetic of smooth surfaces and less body openings than usual. It also has an astonishing touch screen interior (as does the Fisker) and the entire company is doing things very differently, run by an ex-internet billionaire (paypal founder). This is Tesla’s second model, the first being a product that had almost no practical application other than to show-off the technology and to tempt those rich early adopters into joining in the development party. Genius.

Fisker Karma: (see my previous post): Made in Finland, designed by a Dane in California- who set-up his company there because he realised silicon valley was about to become the new Motor City…. I would bet that he will be correct. He (Henrik Fisker) also designed the Tesla Model S, to which they had a little falling-out over because they claimed he made it purposely less sexy than his own car! The Karma breaks all the traditional design rules because it starts from an entirely new packaging proposition- much like the plasma TV gave us “hang-on-the-wall” thinness. There is even a version that revives that ultimate luxury car product- the shooting brake!

Rolls Royce 102-EX: A real no-brainer here, Rolls Royces are for people to be driven in, who keep them in garages with an attendant driver to charge it up for them and electric motors ensure properly silent running. Owners are also willing to spend any amount to have the world not hate them for their opulence…

BMW i8: The i3 and the i8 from BMW are such radical thinking from BMW, they decided to create an entire new sub-brand, with a new design language also. They are made from materials that BMW have never used in full production before, and in the case of the i8 they emphasize pure performance. It has perfect 50/50 weight distribution, and 0-60 of 5 seconds, both cars use unique packaging only possible because of their EV or hybrid design. A lot like the Karma this new space utilisation creates a completely radical shape- not just design details, but the entire form and layout of the car moves us into the future. Wonderful!

Jaguar CX75: I absolutely love this car, look at how utterly gorgeous it is. Concept car perfection- and now destined for production in 2013. This is Jaguars first hybrid car and they have chosen (unlike Toyota, Nissan) to put it right at the very top of their range, as a halo product. This is of course genius, and makes our rich friends pay for the technology that we might all be driving with in the future. The CX75 concentrates on performance by using absolutely amazing turbine engines to charge the battery packs!

The French!

Renault Twizy: Now this is simply too odd to call- typically the crazy French are doing neither a premium halo product, nor attempting to simply give us an ordinary car with EV tech (ok, so Renault are actually rolling out a whole range which includes the most boring cheap looking saloon I’ve ever seen). No, Renault have decided to make a vehicle that is hard to label- a four wheeled covered motorbike for city streets. It is hard to guess exactly who might buy this device, or if we might see bunches of them droning up the slow lane of the M6 in the UK, or tottering through the vast long forest roads here in Finland (no is the answer to both) trying to swerve around a Moose. This is not a car- but it looks like fun!

As usual, here’s a gallery (and slideshow) of my research for this post.

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4 responses to “right, wrong and french- the future of the electric car”

  1. This article is really interesting after the ‘Mainstreaming Sustainability’ seminar I attended this week. The sum up of what the researchers presented was that 5 years ago in 2007 we were all rolling in cash, the world economy was in rude health. The climate change issues highlighted at the time were something consumers were embracing and happy to pay a premium for. Organic food being the best example. Maybe this was the thinking behind a lot of these premium eco automotive projects (as they would have been started back then). However another valuable point made was that 70% of the general public are what marketeers call ‘light green’. They are aware, they would LIKE to do something, but don’t have the time/dedication/money to do it. This has not changed for a long time, and is likely not to. What has changed is the world economy has imploded. Today the average consumer is broke. The only thing at the top of the guy in the streets list, the ‘light green’ consumer, is to SAVE money, reduce costs. So by this respect are the cheap Honda, or the affordable hybrid guys actually way ahead and in a position to benefit?

    Of course it is never this simple. In the UK guess which supermarket has grown the most since economic hard times kicked in? Waitrose – the most expensive and premium one. Who has suffered the most? Tesco – the average one. So maybe the car guys are on to something after all. The conclusion of the seminar? It seemed to be that the holy grail, the golden ticket is to combine saving the consumer money with enhancing their image, AND being green in some way. A tough call but if someone cracks it, they will make a lot of money!


  2. I think something like the Nissan Leaf has a role in the EV market, more so than the hybrids out now. It makes a GREAT commuter. The only thing that puts me off about owning a Nissan Leaf and a gasoline car for long distance trips is the price. $30,000 is just too much for a commuter.

    I’m giving serious consideration to the Model S. I’ll wait for the reviews before I commit to anything but it looks like a proper automobile and seems quite practical. 300+ miles on a charge is plenty of juice to get me where I want to go. If I really have to go further than that and cannot fly I’ll just rent a gasoline car.


  3. Those are still concepts (the BMWs) so they won’t quite look like that when they go on sale. I think they will come in fairly standard paint schemes and the transparent door panels won’t make it through crash testing (probably).


  4. I do like the look of those two BMW EVs, though I’m not sure the paintjob would look cool for long, as radical changes like that have a habit of looking cheesy very quickly. The Twizy almost looks small enough to do little town journeys like a bike, then perhaps you could dock it with a train for longer runs.


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