Electric Vehicles: Lessons from Consumer Technology

A common critique of green products is that they require changes in consumer behavior to deliver environmental benefits or that they cost too much, or both. That critique fails to acknowledge that higher costs and changes in behavior are often the hallmark of technologically innovative products, many of which go on to become hugely successful and to reshape our society.

Consumer technology products, in particular, frequently require changes in consumer behavior. From the PC to the cell phone, they have required consumers to change they way they perform familiar tasks, and to perform new tasks–ranging from backing up disks to engaging in continuous communication streams. As far as costs are concerned, many technologies enjoy economies of scale later in their lifecyle that are not available in their early days. Deep pocketed corporations, sometimes with the support of venture backers, combined with passionate early adopters, come together to help such products across the chasm to widespread adoption.

The products of Apple Inc., to name one overused example, tend to combine the characteristics of requiring behavioral change and high cost. The iPhone and iPad are predicated on the idea that consumers will change their behavior to use them–typing without a keyboard, anyone? And they are substantially more expensive than traditional alternatives.

Edison and a 1914 Detroit Electric, model 47 (...
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Electric vehicles also present a combination of the need to change behavior and high costs. Recharging a vehicle is a different process than refueling, for example. And electric cars need to be recharged more frequently than conventional cars need to be refueled.

But statistics indicate that most americans’ daily commute is less than the range offered by electric vehicles. While to be taken with a grain of statistical salt because of selection bias, a survey of early adopters of electric vehicles shows little concern over range limitations.

Meanwhile, the high costs of electric vehicles are due to the relatively miniscule scale of production and technological immaturity of electric cars compared to conventional vehicles.

The total cost of developing the market for electric vehicles includes creating an infrastructure to enable drivers to charge their vehicles conveniently. A charging infrastrucure is just starting to be created. One participant is ECOtality of North America, which will deploy some 15,000 charging stations over 36 months at a cost of $230 million, or about $16,000 per station. Half the funds are being supplied by the U.S. Department of Energy.

This pilot project has research objectives that could be important to the development of an infrastructure for charging electric vehicles. According to ECOtotality, project “will collect and analyze data to characterize vehicle use in diverse topographic and climatic conditions, evaluate the effectiveness of charge infrastructure, and conduct trials of various revenue systems for commercial and public charge infrastructure.” This kind of intelligence will be crucial to help guide the innovation in the emerging electric vehicle market.

Skepticism about the markets for green products and services is fine and healthy. But it should be articulated in the context of what we know about technology innovation in other markets.

What are your thoughts?

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Filed under transportation

3 responses to “Electric Vehicles: Lessons from Consumer Technology

  1. I am always happy to see plugs for EVs no matter how limited. Your piece made me think back to a time when I bought my first PC. AT $4,000 it was not cheap; on the other hand it was cheaper than a mainframe or mini-computer. The technology caught on with everyone because it was a means to lower costs for computer technology. I know I was one of the beneficiaries at the time. My point is to piggyback on your point of expected behavior change. No one, least of all the major computer hardware manufacturers, saw the potential for PCs in the beginning.

    This is not so with the Electric Vehicle (EV). Everyone sees the potential but few understand that for the potential to be realized the EV needs to be viewed through a slightly different lens than the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) automobile. The problem is a mirror image parallel to the PC ‘s history. Manufacturers didn’t get the PC until companies like Microsoft and Apple made it clear that software trumps hardware which was the reverse in big business where the marketing was focused on size as in transaction throughput. With few exceptions (like Better Place) EV manufacturers are trying to duplicate the culture of ICE. Interestingly you have a picture of an early prior turn of the century EV. It was defeated by the ICE machines because the fuel was so cheap it didn’t matter how inefficient or stinky it was. It created a culture the EV could not compete with. Today EVs are fantastically cheaper to operate than ICE machines. Power for EV drives is more like 30 cents per gallon and there are so many fewer parts involved that EVs would be much cheaper to operate as well. In other words the tables are turned now infavor of the EV.

    All except one item—the battery. If the EV manufacturers could just leave the battery or the electric drive to other the price of EVs would drop below that of most cars.

    As for the battery. It is true they are still limiting but can there be any doubt that if the battery development is separated from the vehicle that developments will advance much faster and in more ways than just the battery. The facts are that more and more processes are converted to electric drives because electric motors are significantly more efficient. If the car makers simply left an electric socket in the car we could see the development of numerous forms of electric drives.

    What about the necessary infrastructure? Electricity is just about everywhere and regardless of drive types, refueling –charging—will take place somewhere and chances are much better that this will be done much faster either through robotics system that will replace batteries in “gas” stations in less time than it currently takes to fill a car with gas or some new fangled battery that charges faster. The technology also exists and will be developed for Wi-Fi EV refueling.

    But we better get going. The biggest constraint at present to America’s growth is our reliance on oil for our transport systems–over 70% of oil is used for transport and 100% of imported oil is used for transport. At $3 a gallon at the pump we are exporting dollars at the rate of $1,000 per person per year or $30 billion per month. You do the Math of what will happen when it goes suddenly to $4 than $5 or even $10. Exporting dollars is not the kind of export we want to be in.

  2. Like any behavioral change, people need to believe the change will be worth whatever they need to invest – time, money, effort, etc. They need to believe they will be able to manage the transition as well as sustain the new behavior. Demonstrating that a change is doable – this includes addressing accessibility as well as capability (will an electric vehicle work for me? how will I keep it charged? can I afford to buy one?) and is worth the effort will be essential factors in marketing. I believe people genuinely want to help with sustainability but need to know they CAN and that the investment they must make is WORTH IT. Demonstrate to them that electric cars meet this criteria and appeal to their sense of “greater good” and I think it’s a recipe for success! As long as the vehicles really do meet or exceed consumer expectations, that is.

  3. P.S. Nice article, well articulated. Thanks!

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