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The Pseudo Sunset of the Electric Car

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Recent headlines suggesting doom for EVs are almost certainly myopic. My years covering tech trends that worked - and didn’t - tell me this is a case of mistaking the tail for the dog.

I see automakers and their electric travails as the tail, while legislation, policy, R&D and investment constitute the dog: The tail whips up and down and side to side but the dog is still going to get where it’s going. And even if EVs were a dumb idea (which I don’t think they are), they’re coming; The die has been cast by forces much larger than the auto industry. The combination of major R&D that nobody wants to waste, along with policy & regulation and subsidization has previously shaped energy, agriculture and healthcare; EVs are next - the future of transportation is too important to leave to just carmakers and their customers.

None of which convinces automotive traditionalists that ICE vehicles need anything more than a nip & tuck like more advanced turbos or e-fuel. That’s similar to the “natural, normal and necessary” rut that typifies our outlook on food. But ICE platforms - after a century of tweaks - still waste about 70% of a fraught fuel, mostly creating heat and brake dust, not transportation. And not for a lack of pressure to do better. They’re done.

Over the dozen or so years when I reviewed the technology in a couple of cars each week, it became clear to me that modern cars are a collection of systems meant to compensate for the failings of their main system: Exotic variable valvetrains, turbochargers, computerized engine control modules, complicated automatic transmissions and expensive catalyzing exhaust systems defending an intractable and inefficient metal ingot with cylinders bored into it that is an engine.

Yes, electric cars have early challenges and will never be perfect. But I'm reminded of something Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown likes to say: “We’re not solving for kale, we’re solving for beef” when critics point out that his company’s product isn’t perfect. Like his company’s meat, EVs are a broad improvement over the status quo right out of the gate, with vastly more headroom for innovation than the incumbent.

Some of the EVs “imperfections” actually lie in customer misperception, not the nature of the car. Irrational demand for 518 miles of range by drivers who average 29.2 miles a day is a central example of why we can’t let the calcified perceptions of buyers direct the future of cars.

Gartner’s famous hype cycle is at work in the EV sector, but in a complex way that fools some into seeing the beginning of EVs as a sign of their end.

The simplest version of hype cycle concept looks like this:

This basic rendition works well for simple categories that don’t have complex dependencies on hardcore R&D, public investment, regulation, connectivity, network effect or interoperability with other platforms. But the electric car sector does has several of those complexities, along with a very global footprint, leading to a multiphase hype cycle that perhaps looks more like this:

Each colored line could represent a subsiector large enough to be an industry in itself, like Tesla, US automakers, Chinese automakers, charging infrastructure and battery manufacture.

More nuanced might be the version below that depicts variable contours of each phase:

It’s easy to be in the chaotic middle of the horizontal axis and believe it signifies the failure of EVs. In fact, it depicts a crucible where progress is being forged in fire for a more powerful, multilateral future. That’s how complex sectors get to where they’re going.

In my mind there are four levers that need to be pulled in some combination as we get to the EV future:

  • Cleaner batteries. The large, central component of an EV is a rather dirty thing, but the manufacture and operation of combustion engines isn’t exactly a lily farm. And EV batteries can have second and third lives while worn out ICE engines clunk through junkyards and smelting plants.

  • Cheaper EVs. Not just cheaper than they are now, but cheaper than ICE cars could hope to be. EVs are vastly simpler machines than ICE vehicles, putting us on the threshold of much cheaper cars once industrial efficiencies take hold somewhere in the late middle of the hype cycle. By many accounts, we’ve already hit a cost tipping point with EVs based on total cost of ownership with average retail price following.

  • Less Battery. We’ve always bought too much car, like vast SUVs that generally transport a person or two, or off-road “certified” vehicles that will never conquer anything taller than a curb at Whole Foods. But I suspect that a new, smarter generation of car buyers will realize that gas stations and fuel tanks aren’t the right metric for EVs and that a blend of range, charge opportunity and charging time is. That leads to less appetite for Herculean batteries, with all kinds of positive knock-on effects.

  • Charging availability. While greater battery capacity and faster charge time seem highly attractive, I continue to feel that charge availability is the holy grail for EVs in the short to mid term. It’s the easiest lever to pull when it comes to EV livability for the widest audience. The ideal is that almost every time an EV stops, it charges. That involves a lot of work, but it’s work we know how to do right now.

Finally, public investment will be a linchpin to the EV future. You may recoil at such an idea, demanding that market forces determine what cars we drive as you fly a Gadsden flag, but your food, health and home have always all been substantially steered by public investment and policy in our enviably robust market.



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