Invisible Benefits of Electric Vehicles

EV benefits are hard to see. I do not mean to say that EVs don’t have benefits, or even that their benefits are slight. My point is simply that most EV benefits are not at all obvious to most internal combustion engine (ICE) drivers – a serious issue that is easy for us EV drivers to forget. Tesla is making some benefits more visible, and we EV owners can help too.

My EV Backstory

In January 1990, my wife took a picture of me reading the newspaper with our week-old baby. Well, technically I was reading near the baby, as he couldn’t read yet. Anyway…

The article in front of me is about the GM Impact, an electric vehicle concept car. I was intrigued enough that I still recall reading the article and pondering the implications, despite it containing prominent warnings about short range and high costs – including higher-than-ICE operating costs. But alas, it was just a concept; so I didn’t think about it for long.

In 2000, I read that a few EVs were available in California; but as we were out of babies, my wife did not take a picture. I called a Toyota dealer in Northern California to see if there was any way I could purchase or lease a RAV4-EV – I guess the answer was “no,” as they hung up on me.

In 2006 I started tracking companies that said they planned to come out with an EV someday. They were mostly startups looking for funding, so progress was interminably slow. My wife quickly grew tired of my commentary on the subject. (And on many other subjects as well, but her reluctance to listen to me opine on this topic seemed particularly strong).

In 2008, we got one of the first non-fleet Hymotion kits to convert my wife’s Prius in to a plug-in hybrid. Getting 100mpg was great; but I was still hoping for the simplicity of a BEV. Besides, the Prius was my wife’s car, which made my 60mpg Honda Insight our gas guzzler. That couldn’t stand, so the search continued.

I Get an EV and Discover Benefits

The Tesla Roadster started shipping in 2008, but in tiny quantities with a very long wait list and, most notably, an extremely high price tag – I wanted an EV, but not that bad. I did not give it serious consideration.

I started looking at used California EVs despite a lack of service options in my area. I finally won an Ebay auction for a six-year-old RAV4-EV in March 2009. My wife’s comment was “you can experiment all you want with your car, but leave my Prius alone.”

In March 2009, I purchased a 2003 Toyota RAV4-EV.

It seems odd to me now, but while waiting for the RAV4 to be shipped to me, I still expected it to be a “penalty” car. I didn’t know any EV owners, and had never seen an EV in person. I “knew” there would be a price to driving the car; I only bought it because I was willing to pay that price in order to get away from burning petroleum.

Once the RAV4 arrived, I discovered the invisible EV benefits. I’ll cover them below, but for now suffice it to say that by July, my wife performed a hostile takeover of the RAV4.

I retaliated by ordering a Tesla Roadster – sure it was six-times the money I’d ever spent on a gas car, a tiny 2-seater with extremely limited storage, there were no sales or service centers or charging stations within 800 miles, and it was not entirely clear whether Tesla was financially stable enough to deliver the car I had to pay cash for before they would start building it. Just a few months earlier, I had not seriously considered it at all. But now that I knew the benefits, I really wanted to encourage the only EV automaker.

To my mind, EVs were a win-win-win scenario, and the only problem was educating ICE drivers about the invisible EV benefits. How hard can it be?

Visible Vehicle Benefits

Consider the average ICE driver that is considering replacing their car. What do they want in a car? What do they think is available?

Many salient vehicle benefits are highly visible – indeed, they are often why one car is selected over another. Consider:
– The sleek lines of an Aston Martin
– The cargo capacity of a GMC Sierra 3500HD
– The passenger capacity of a Ford Transit Passenger Wagon XL
– The ease of parking a Smart Car
– The elegant interior of a Rolls-Royce Wraith
– The frugality of a Toyota Yaris (very explicit on the window sticker – price and mpg)
– The cup holders of a Chrysler Pacifica
– The practical every-day utility of the Batmobile

Some other benefits that can’t be firmly established with just a glance (though they are often hinted at by styling) can be gleaned very quickly from a ride or a test drive, such as:
– The brutal force of a Dodge Hellcat
– The razor handling of a Porsche 911
– The off-road ability of a Jeep Wrangler
– The serene cabin of a Lexus LS

These are obvious things that can make it easy to gravitate towards a certain type of vehicle. By virtue of being both numerous and obvious (and often stressed in advertisements), these visible benefits drive a lot of purchase decisions.

Invisible Vehicle Benefits

However, not all vehicle benefits are obvious after a quick examination. Consider reliability; something that many consumers would love to consider as a buying criteria. One can look under the hood and car and try to figure out how well it is assembled, and look online to see how past versions fared in small non-representative samples; but it is definitely not obvious, and any data you look up at best only predicts your experience in a statistical sense.

Insurance rates are another example, made difficult by how widely they vary by company, customer, coverage, and over time. It is possible to call an insurance agent and get a pretty good idea, but it takes some work to get there. A few people check before buying, but most don’t bother. The problem isn’t always that invisible benefits can’t be found; it is often enough that they are not obvious. There are already more variables in a vehicle purchase decision than our brains can handle, so few people will expend much effort to uncover more.

While invisible ICE benefits exist, they are not a big deal because ICE vehicles are already ubiquitous so even their invisible benefits are generally well-known from experience. But with a new technology like EVs…well, most consumers have learned the hard way that marketers are good at trumpeting benefits (at least with products they want to sell in quantity) but rarely mention downsides, so consumers are trained to be on a sharp lookout for downsides in new technology.

New technology is, unsurprisingly, adopted faster when the benefits are obvious; and this effect is stronger as the price goes up.

EV Benefits: Largely Invisible

I often find ICE drivers incredulous to hear that there are ANY benefits to EVs, aside from suspect environmental benefits. Environmental benefits are, of course, invisible and are therefore often questioned; but at least they are usually considered as they have been mentioned in most EV articles (often to the detriment of consumer interest – a topic I could write at length on, but I am currently writing at length about something else).

When our ICE friends look at a photo of an EV, they can’t see any of the following:
– Gobs of low-end torque
– Accelerator responsiveness
– Low center of gravity
– Luxury-car smoothness
– Better packaging
– Quietness
– Traction control that is not just monitored, but also adjusted at electronic speeds

And not only can they not see the following, but they still can’t tell for sure that these benefits exist even after poking around a real-life EV and taking a test drive:
– Fueling convenience
– Fuel cost savings
– Less maintenance
– Less road trip fatigue due to less vibrations, noise, and smell

And the “social” benefits that aren’t directly for the driver, but accrue to all of us:
– Air and water quality improvements
– Lower lifecycle carbon costs
– Benefits to the local and national economy
– Benefits to national security

The social benefits are just as invisible as the personal benefits; the big difference is that EV advocates often trot out the social benefits as good reasons to support EVs. Which is true, they are good reasons to support EVs…it is just that for most people, they don’t drive vehicle buying decisions. Which is more what I am concerned with here.

While unaware of the personal benefits of EVs, most ICE drivers have at least heard of EVs’ social benefits. Even if they feel they should buy one (just like they should eat better and exercise more), they usually don’t want to because they don’t want to suffer the imagined personal downsides.

The invisibility of EV benefits is largely responsible for the irony that what EV owners generally list as the favorite features of their EVs in surveys (fun to drive, convenient, low in-class TCO) are the exact opposites of what most non-owners rate as their primary concerns (high cost, anemic performance, inconvenience). Not only do ICE drivers generally dismiss EVs as a purchase option because of their misconceptions; they don’t even see a reason to research EVs. This is why invisible EV benefits are so unlikely to be discovered without somebody getting out in front of ICE drivers and talking about them.

Tesla: Making Some Benefits Available

In September 2012, my wife upgraded to a 2012 Tesla Model S85 Signature. It replaced the RAV4-EV.

There is a lot more to be done; but Tesla has done a great deal to improve how consumers with little information about EVs tend to view them by default. As Daimler’s CEO recently said, Tesla has done much to remove the “granola image” surrounding EVs.

Back in 2009, the most common question I got about my Roadster was not about range (that didn’t come until every PEV media story from roughly 2010 until 2013 mentioned it prominently). The most common question I heard was, “Can it go on the freeway?” Even while looking at the Roadster, they were amazed to hear that electricity could provide reasonable propulsion. I posited a few reasons for this attitude five years ago:

There are still an awful lot of people that haven’t even heard of Tesla; but there are also quite a few that have, and most of them feel a lot better about EV performance potential than they did just a few years ago.

Similarly, back in 2009 the most common comment (as opposed to question) was probably something along the lines of “But it doesn’t look like an electric car!” Of course, it was the only electric car available at the time, so by definition it looked EXACTLY like an electric car. But I know what they meant – they were referring to low-speed, low-safety Neighborhood Electric Vehicles. They had never seen anything else.

People looking at my Teslas don’t say that anymore. They know an EV can look good. In fact, these days a fairly common comment is along the lines of “Tesla is the only one making a good-looking EV.”

Tesla is definitely changing perceptions about what an EV is.

You Can Help Make Them Visible Too

A great many times I have described EV benefits to somebody that, at best, nodded politely; then I enjoyed the shocked expression on their face when I took them for a ride. There is no substitute for experiencing an EV, especially for those that just assume an electric powertrain is an inferior choice. A very brief experience can turn a skeptic arguing why an EV can’t work for them in to an interested consumer trying to figure out how to make one work. It is not just being exposed to the invisible benefits; it is also the opportunity to talk to an owner and feel their attitude towards the car.

Rationality factors in to our decisions (some of us more than others, another lengthy topic my wife is tired of), but it is our emotional circuitry that makes decisions – we make the one that feels right. Consumers have to feel an EV – and the attitudes of others towards it – to evaluate it properly. Fortunately even people that say they have no interest in EVs rarely turn down an offer of a ride; so if we make the offer, we have a chance to spread the experience.

Dealers are just starting to figure out how to sell EVs; automakers will wait until most dealers (their only legal sales channel) are on board to market EVs with the same methods they use for volume ICE vehicles. Even once all the dealers and manufacturers are on board, consumers will always be more trusting of the opinions of other customers – especially for a high-priced new-technology purchase like an EV.

You can make an enormous difference – and giving rides to EV newbies is a lot of fun!

TMC Member Chad Schwitters is a retired mobile software executive. He has been an EV driver since 2008 and a Tesla driver since 2009. Additionally, he served as Event Coordinator for the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association and as a board member for Plug In America.

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