Vive la difference!

TRL's CEO Paul Campion looks at work done in Italy to inspire new ways of thinking about use of electric cars as personal transport. He challenges EV suppliers to get more creative with their sales pitch.

Published on 21 January 2021

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Transport is one area of the economy that has, until now, been resisting real change to address the climate crisis. Finally - after a long delay - action in this area looks like it is beginning. Government consultation is nearing completion and a plan is promised in early 2021, while the European Union has also recently published a paper that sets ambitious targets.

The automotive market is also moving: automotive companies have been developing electric versions of, in most cases, their entire range of vehicles. Having manufactured them, the task now is to sell them. Soon Electric Vehicles (EVs) will be at the front of all showrooms with internal combustion models demoted to under-the-counter specials.

“Oh, but the range; the cost; what about the need for more charging points?” we still hear. These questions highlight the fact that electric and hybrid cars have different performance characteristics to conventional cars. However, there has already been considerable work done to understand how people think about these differences and how they will adapt to them.

Here at TRL, we ran a major research study which surveyed people’s views about EVs and BHEVs and then gave them one to live with and surveyed them again after a few weeks to see how their attitudes changed. We assessed the way they used the car, how they went about charging it and how they responded to different electricity pricing regimes. Unsurprisingly, most people found their fears about how the differences would affect them were overblown; the EV fitted into their lives smoothly with easy adjustments. Interestingly, there was a small minority whose opinions on EVs deteriorated following the study; it turned out they had not correctly imagined how the differences would impact them.

Even though there are huge benefits to alternative power sources for vehicles there are bound to be some things that are negatively affected: after all, our lives and the very physical layout of our towns and cities are predicated on the characteristics of vehicles with an internal combustion engine, which have been the only choice for more than a century. A rapid changeover to EVs depends on understanding the detail of how to adapt our lives to the new technology.

Research conducted in Italy last year gives us some pointers towards resolving this step. The researchers used demographic, geographical and economic data to answer the question: ‘What proportion of Italians could use EVs today with no changes to their lifestyle?’ So, for instance, they eliminated people who lived somewhere without off-street parking as charging overnight if your car is parked on the street is not currently practicable.

They studied people’s travel patterns and compared them with the practical range of an EV and examined the costs of buying, servicing and refuelling a car over the normal ownership period. The researchers concluded that 13% of Italians could switch to an EV today without compromise - they would not pay more, and they would never exceed the range.

This may be more or less than you might have guessed, but what is certain is that this percentage will only grow as battery technology improvements allow greater range and manufacturing efficiencies lead to cheaper purchase prices. The declining attractiveness of fossil fuel cars on the second-hand market will also improve the cost comparison in favour of EVs.

To me, the particularly interesting part of the Italian study was an extrapolation they carried out. They asked a further question: ‘How many could switch to an EV with no compromise IF they also had access to an internal combustion car for up to five journeys a year?’ The answer was 34%. To put this differently, one in five Italian drivers may be ‘prevented’ from using an EV by as few as five over-range trips a year.

In the worlds of sales and marketing the word ‘differentiation’ is used to mean those aspects of your product and service that are different from the competition and can be used to demonstrate a particular benefit for the user. From this perspective, all differences are potentially valuable.

Let us take a real example from the automotive world. Tesla saw that one of the differences between electric motors and internal combustion engines gave the opportunity for marketing differentiation. A fossil fuel vehicle typically develops its maximum torque at a few thousand revs. It is for this reason that learner drivers fear the hill-start so much: it is quite easy to stall an internal combustion engine if you misjudge the torque/revs balance and using a manual clutch to hit the right balance requires considerable skill.

An electric motor, on the other hand, develops maximum torque at zero revs. A pessimist might see this as de-skilling the art of driving; an optimist sees the opportunity to sell their EV as being the ideal tool to be first and fastest away from the lights…and that’s how Tesla sold their cars.

Perhaps if we take this perspective, we can be optimistic about how easy it might be to persuade people to use EVs. Rather than viewing differences as things taken away, let us think of them as (different) things given. Selling EVs as quiet, clean, cheap devices for local travel gives people a pleasant and less expensive way to do most of their trips. Bundle in (i.e. at no additional charge) a few longer trips a year in a new rental petrol car and we might have the perfect combination.

In fact, once we start down this way of thinking it is tempting to extend it. How many people pay extra fuel costs to drive around in a much bigger car than they need most of the time just because a few times a year – going on holiday, taking kids to university etc – they need an estate car or SUV? Package up a financial deal which provides access to “specialist vehicles” on demand as part of the purchase of a “generalist” vehicle, and we might be onto something.

How about two for the price of one? Citroen have introduced the ‘Ami’ – a tiny, electric, city car with room for one person, but so small and relatively slow that, in France, it does not need a full driving licence and can be driven by a 14-year-old.

What about access to a whole range of specialist devices – e-scooters, e-bikes, e-cargo-bikes, small cars, large cars – all bundled together into one price plan? This is where the traditional automotive business starts to meet ‘Mobility as a Service’ from the other end.

Ultimately, it is really all about behaviour. The traditional perspective is that any difference from the car ownership model that has ruled our lives and our built environment for a century is a bad thing; that ‘different’ equals ‘worse’. An alternative perspective would not seek to apologise for difference (‘EVs are nearly as good as petrol cars and are getting better’), nor seeks to justify (‘EVs don’t have the same range but are saving the planet’), but instead seeks to show how the differences are better (‘EVs are faster off the lights and much quieter so you can listen to the radio or talk much more comfortably’).

For at least the next decade, there will always be things that fossil fuelled cars are better at: the world has been designed for them, but those things are only important in a minority of situations, and that proportion will drop over time. In the meantime, we can get on with decarbonising transport. ‘Vive la difference’, as the sales and marketing people say.

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