Electric Cars

I’m going to follow long blogger tradition and write a little something about a topic where I am far from an expert, in this case I’ll write about cars. I currently drive a 2007 Subaru Outback and my wife drives a leased 2013 Subaru Impreza. Looking a few years down the line it seems clear that we will need to upgrade at least one of them so I’m looking at the landscape and seeing what looks interesting.

To me, the most exciting things in the automotive world are electric cars. Despite some faltering early entrants, most manufacturers recently began investing in renewable energy and have begun offering something to the market. Tesla, Elon Musk’s auto startup, makes regular headlines with expanding features for its Model S customers, announcements for its two announced future cars, and its regulatory battles. There’s a lot to admire in Tesla. They have formed a vertically integrated company in a well entrenched industry and have seemed to enjoy success. They are easy to cheer for as they fight against ridiculous laws in many states in order to sell directly to consumers1. Their ambition is obvious in their plans to build a network of superchargers throughout the nation. Their commitment to treating their customers right is also laudable. You may have noticed something missing in my praise though, the cars themselves. To be frank, they are not that exciting to me for two overriding reasons, cost and design.

Cost

It’s hard for me to get excited about something so far outside my price range, and even if that was not the case I’m not sure I would ever feel comfortable spending that much on a car. I think this is problematic in the long term for Tesla. To truly have a disrupting influence in an industry a new entrant should come from the bottom, not the top. American car companies were thrown on their ear by the Japanese, not because Honda/Toyota did more or were more luxurious, but because they were much cheaper and did just enough for most people’s needs. This high price tag also leaves Tesla vulnerable to more entrenched players, which I will get to below. Should Tesla prove a market exists it is much easier for an established company to throw resources at that market and deeply undercut Tesla’s offerings. I think we can see this starting to happen already. Were Tesla approaching the market from the low end the advantage of big firms would be diminished.

Design

The fact that I don’t like Tesla’s car design is part personal taste and part disappointment. I feel like they look slightly inflated and bulbous, like a rich man’s late 90s era Ford Taurus. I don’t understand the fear of edges that existed in that era and Tesla seems like a throwback to me. That’s very subjective, but there are aspects of the design that seem like a wasted opportunity. The ways cars look today have a great deal to do with how they work. The shape of a car is built around its engine, power train, transmission, etc. An electric car has many fewer constraints and thus does not need to look like a traditional car. Perhaps hoping to ease people into the idea of electric cars, Tesla has decided that their cars will look like all their gas guzzling friends. This is skeuomorphism. Something I’m not a fan of in software or cars. The bold statement that Tesla makes seems muted by its play-it-safe design.

Competition

Although it seems to garner the most headlines Tesla is not the only entrant in the electric car market. For me, the two most interesting alternatives to Tesla are the Nissan Leaf and the BMW i3.

Nissan Leaf

The Nissan Leaf is a much more affordable electric car, starting around $30K. Both Tesla and Nissan prominently feature the post tax incentive price, low 20Ks in Nissan’s case and low 60Ks in Tesla’s. The savings may be real, but seem like double talk from the car makers. Tax incentives for more environmentally conscious cars seem like they’ll be here for a while, but once the market grows large enough the government may think twice about leaving that much money on the table.2 The Leaf’s range is about half of a Tesla’s, but still plenty for daily driving. In fact, until a nationwide infrastructure for rapid charging is in place the difference between 100 and 200 miles in driving range doesn’t make much difference to me. 100 miles per day is plenty for my average commute (and probably most people’s) and a road trip will require a gas vehicle anyway.

I don’t love the Leaf’s look, but am very intrigued by its positioning as an affordable electric vehicle. To make any meaningful impact in the types of cars average people drive the costs have to be low. In fact, I think we will start to see mass adoption of electric vehicles when they cost even less. I hope that the Leaf does well, people seem to like it, and all the major manufacturers make an electric model in the same price range (or cheaper).

BMW i3

The BMW i3 is the electric vehicle I am most exited about. Although not as affordable as the Nissan Leaf it still costs $20K less than the Tesla’s Model S,3 Low $40K to start, and probably $30K after tax incentives. The i3’s range is about the same as the Leaf, but they have taken the cake for forward looking design. This car looks like the future.4 It was obvious that the designers realized that this car could look different than cars with engines and exhaust pipes and emphasized it. The benefits are not just aesthetic. For example, despite its small footprint, there is room to make the seating comfortable for driver and passengers. When I see the i3’s design I get excited, not only for the car itself, but for the possibilities that are now open to different manufacturers that embrace EVs. The future certainly looks cool.

Conclusion

My window shopping will not lead to an actual purchase within the next couple years, but the small variety of entrants in the market make me hopeful. I worry for Tesla’s future if they stay in their current price range, despite the great things they do as a company. But if the Leaf and i3 find success, I’m confident the rest of the big players will jump in. I can imagine an all wheel drive electric Subaru, electric mini-vans, electric Honda Civics, or maybe a new entrant that we haven’t anticipated. The future looks bright.


  1. Dealer networks have lobbied for laws in many states forbidding car makers from selling directly to consumers. This protectionist status quo makes little sense in today’s world (I’m not sure it ever made sense). Just imagine if Apple was barred from setting up its own retail stores, thus forcing you to purchase from middle men. In fact this is why they created retail stores in the first place. Historically they had been ill featured by self interested retail middle men and wanted a chance to show what made their products special in an environment they controlled. Tesla wants the same thing for its retail operations. ↩︎

  2. There’s an interesting discussion related to this in the latest Asymcar, episode 20. They discuss the fact that certain perks of being a current EV driver will dissipate with time, as more and more electric vehicles hit the road. Tax perks, prime parking spots, and recharging stations will be part of a much different arithmetic for the auto ecosystem when a significant portion of vehicles are electric. ↩︎

  3. This should be a wake up call to Tesla to get a more affordable car on the market. When BMW’s alternative to your luxury car is 2/3s the price you have a problem. I may be missing Tesla’s marketing of the Model S as a super car vs. the i3 as a commuter car, but the future will not be made by super cars. It will be made by cars that people actually drive. I may not be representative of the market but I’m certainly more representative than your average Tesla buyer. ↩︎

  4. This is obviously subjective. The 2 tone coloring may not be to everybody’s taste, it’s certainly not to my wife’s. ↩︎