Bringing Digital Thinking to Electric Vehicles

The Atlantic and a few other media outlets have been reporting this week on lackluster sales of the two most touted electric cars released in the US recently, the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. Through February, only 173 Leafs (Leaves?) had been sold in this market, only a small slice of the 13,000+ pre-orders that Nissan had taken following the announcement of this slick vehicle. Volt is doing better, but only marginally. While this lag has been put down to slow production, it has opened the door to questions about what drives sales of electric vehicles right now—whether it will take higher gas prices, better performance, a more accessible price, or some combo of these three?

What seems to be missing from most discussions is a focus on ease of use, particularly around charging—not so much about battery life and frequency of charging, but ease of management. Without a gas engine to fall back on, as hybrids have, charging issues present a potential no-go for buyers. But it seems that, for the most part, analysts, journalists and even the car companies themselves are arguing on the wrong turf—talking about these products like cars—mileage, horsepower, etc. Though this focus on muscle under the hood has worked in the US for decades, times and situations are shifting.

While we have been debating the future potential of EVs in the US and globally for probably 20 years, during that time the context of the consumer has changed. In lives filled with a plethora of gadgets (an average of 24 per household in the US), our expectations are evolving— around usability, battery life, flexibility, and so on, driven by our experiences with our intimate objects, such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, and game devices. Americans measure less of their lives now by horsepower and more by minutes and megabytes. The subtle shift in prefixes from agricultural to digital should be a clear indicator.

As far back as 2005, I highlighted that cars would increasingly encounter user expectation overflow from devices like iPods. And now here we are, with our biggest gadget yet—the car. Driving will almost threaten to become an afterthought in the next few years as we need to plug it in, charge it, sync it, load it with apps, update the interface, upgrade firmware, rip content to hard-drives, fiddle with wi-fi reception, manage displays and pay for content subscriptions. Oh, and wash it occasionally. A car is increasingly a device to be managed, a node on a network. 

Some interesting changes are happening to shift the conversation, and probably pull car makers into the consumers space more definitively. Electronics retailer Best Buy is putting its Geek Squad of service techs behind installation of electric charging stations. Not new news, but combined with other signals, it heralds a mindshift. Just this week, a new smartphone app called PlugShare has emerged to allow users to share and find charging points with EV drivers. Got some wattage to share? Put yourself on the map. Need a plug nearby? Grab the iPhone and search around you. Innovation specialists rolled out a wireless charging mat system for home garages or anywhere you need a top-up not at the Detroit Auto Show, but at CES in Las Vegas. The system bore more resemblance to what we see offered for recharging home devices on the countertop than a heavy piece of garage tech. 

Hopefully more user experience thinking from the personal electronics segment will permeate automotive design and help brighten the prospects for EVs. After all, you wouldn't buy a tablet that costs $1,500, only keeps a charge through a third of a movie, and requires rewiring the kitchen to charge, would you? Over the next few decades, we increasingly will see these vehicles as another platform in the connected city. We might want to start thinking about what that means now.