Before Martin Eberhard and Mark Tarpenning founded Tesla Motors in 2003, they were trying to figure out the best way to break America’s addiction to oil. 75% of the oil consumed in America is used in transportation, and of that, 50% is used for passenger vehicles. So it became clear that what was needed was an alternative way to power cars, but what exactly would that look like? They examined all kinds of interesting alternative drivetrains, from hydrogen fuel cells to ethanol, but they eventually decided that an electric car was the way to go. So they began to learn everything they could about electric cars; how they worked, past attempts to bring one to market, and the engineering challenges of building one. They learned many things which we will not get in to here, but one of the most interesting, and the one I will be focusing on today, was about the demographics of people who bought the LAST generation of electric vehicles.

From 1998 to 2003, all the major automakers had built and sold electric cars in order to meet a mandate imposed by California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program. The ZEV program required all automakers who wished to sell cars in California to build a minimum number of zero emissions vehicles, or else buy credits from another company that had. General Motors’ model was called the EV 1, and it was generally considered the best EV built during that time period. In their market research on electric vehicles, Eberhard and Tarpenning learned that the average income of an individual that chose to lease the EV 1 was over $200,000.

This was a surprising discovery, and alluded to a deeper truth about why people chose to buy these vehicles in the first place. They were not buying them for economic, aesthetic, or practical reasons. Early adopters of electric vehicles were buying them as a value statement. These vehicles were bought by wealthy individuals who wanted to reduce their impact on the environment and show off their environmental friendless to their neighbors.¹

10 years later, when the next generation of hybrids an electric cars went through the design phase, automakers took the lessons learned from the last generation of electric vehicles to heart. They designed vehicles that projected the values of the driver loud and proud. Take a look at the pictures below, and you’ll see how the design language in newer cars reflects automakers’ evolved understanding of who their target consumer is.

Electric cars produced from 1998-2003

First generation EVs v2

Electric cars produced from 2009-2013

new EVs

This is the design language of compromise. To environmental enthusiasts, it says “Look at this awesome new design! Now THIS is a car of the future!” And the environmentalists stand there in the showroom, daydreaming about the moment when they’ll silently cruise past their kale-munching, prius-owning neighbors on their way to Yoga.

But to the average buyer, this design says something different. It says “This vehicle is a compromise. It is not functional. It is not stylish. It is not economical. The only people who would make this compromise are rich people because they can afford to care more about the environment than their wallets.

This near-universal propensity for weird designs and badges proclaiming environmental benefits discourages mass adoption of these vehicles. For most Americans, environmental impact isn’t even on the list of things they consider when buying a car. Even if everything else about the car is great, they still won’t buy it because they feel uncomfortable driving a rolling billboard for liberal environmentalism. And the thing is, auto makers KNOW this. But they do it anyways because they don’t believe there is a market for EVs outside of a small core of environmental enthusiasts.

The problem is that this belief creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Automakers think no one except environmentalists will buy EVs, so they create designs to attract those buyers. Then when no one except environmentalists buy the cars, those beliefs are confirmed.

These designs not only discourage mass adoption, but they also shows that the auto maker doesn’t believe in the car’s ability to succeed outside of a niche market. Because if these weird looking designs actually helped vehicles sales among a mainstream audience, we would be seeing them everywhere. And we don’t.

In fact, there is evidence that marketing products as “environmentally friendly” can actually discourage consumers from buying them. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at how placing a  “protect the environment!” sticker on a compact fluorescent light bulb affected consumer behavior. It found that the sticker only increased purchasing rates among the most liberal individuals, and that it decreased purchasing rates in all other groups.

The predicted probability of participants choosing the more expensive CFL bulb based on their political ideology (higher numbers indicate greater conservatism) and whether an environmental value was salient. The x-axis contains values from −1 to 1 from the mean of the political ideology composite.

Marketing a product as environmentally friendly only makes sense if your target consumers are all in that small, ultra-liberal group on the left-hand side of the graph. And this is the demographic that all the major automakers are trying to target with weird designs and hybrid badges.

But this will not be the case forever. Batteries get smaller and cheaper every year, and this is the primary reason that plug-in hybrid and pure electric vehicle sales have seen a steep rise in the last few years.

Improvements in battery tech and prices are the primary reason why all ground based transportation will eventually go electric. But mainstream adoption of EVs will be greatly hindered if auto makers continue to insist on goofy designs and on marketing their environmental benefits instead of their economic ones.

This is why all EV enthusiasts should be cheering about the changes Chevy has made to the 2016 Volt.

2015 vs 2016 Volt

This new, more mainstream design is great. Not only does it look better and give the car more mainstream potential, it also shows that CHEVY thinks the car has mainstream potential. They’re finally waking up to the mainstream potential of electric cars.

Keep an eye out for major car makers making these kinds of pivots to a more conventional body design and less badging. These kinds of changes are solid evidence that they are starting to take electric cars seriously. And that’s something we should ALL be hoping for.

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