In the course of just a few days at the start of April 2016, over a quarter of a million people put down $1,000 deposits to secure a place in a queue to buy a new car. It was a car they had never driven, let alone experienced in the metal, and first deliveries were some 18 months away. The reveal of the Tesla Model 3, the fourth model from the Californian car company, was a masterclass in stoking expectation. An overwhelmingly positive media narrative hailed the Model 3 as the 21st century’s Model T Ford, the vehicle to finally bring electric cars (EVs) into the mainstream. 

The truth is inevitably more complicated. The electric car has arrived, and the technology keeps on improving, but the EV market is still tiny. Tesla’s 50,000+ sales in 2015 stand in contrast to global car sales of 72 million. The Model 3 will undoubtedly bolster these numbers, yet there will be limits to how fast those orders can be fulfilled. 

EV ownership is still, first and foremost, a statement – having made the commitment, owners are naturally willing to make the compromises and emphasise the advantages. It’s also a collective mindset, for suddenly a whole network comes into play: the charge points, the mobile grid, combining home plug sockets with sustainable power generation, deploying autonomous driving functions. Electric-car ownership implies political awareness, on both a local and global level. 

The ‘crusading’ element of ownership will inevitably be diluted by a larger market share. Tesla’s high media standing is due in large part to Elon Musk, a charismatic CEO, who seems to have inherited the role once filled by Steve Jobs – an evangelical technocrat with a vision and the funds to fulfil it. Tesla’s products inspire Apple-like levels of rabid loyalty (and equally strong opposition). The Model 3’s chief attraction is price; the base level of $35,000 and range of over 200 miles seems to have been reached without compromising the company’s design or technology ethos. 

The Model 3 faces competition from Chevrolet’s forthcoming Bolt and the next generation Nissan Leaf. Tesla can still trade off status and seduction in a way that Nissan or Chevrolet struggle to do, but logic and economics dictate that the true electric Model T will emerge from markets such as India and China, where political will is stronger than consumer desire. Unlike smartphones, the true game-changing EV will not be a premium product. 

Around 200,000 EVs and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) were sold in China last year, many of which were locally made models not on sale in the West. China’s unique combination of free market and autocracy means that top-down dictates have an immediate impact on buying habits. Annual sales of all EVs could exceed two million by 2020. 

Progress might not be so rapid in the West. Without the smog-shrouded urban landscape and low prices, the carrots are rather more enticing than the sticks at the moment. As long as EVs remain emotive purchases, rather than practical ones, any legislative stick-waving is likely to face stiff opposition. 

But the signs are there. In March it was reported that the Netherlands was mulling over a plan to ban non-EV sales by 2025, and Indian legislators are reportedly looking at 2030 as a practical cut-off to switch to an all-electric fleet. The first major city to ban the internal combustion engine will probably face lawsuits from car-makers, owners, garages, businesses and private owners. But then opposition will start to dwindle. By the time the hundredth city closes its roads to fossil fuels, it will be a non-issue. 

Inevitably, electric cars are yet another facet of modern life that invites heated debate. Read any forum about EVs and you’ll find savage vitriol from all sides. The first hybrids were loss-leaders, expensive rolling beta tests that were both tech demonstrators and celeb-friendly anti-status symbols. Toyota’s Prius has long since been relegated to being the car of Uber drivers and frugal retirees, allowing Tesla to rule the roost for now, just as BMW did 18 months ago with its ‘i’ cars. Tesla invests heavily in R&D but has yet to turn a profit. Detractors cite limited range, the absence of infrastructure, an over-reliance on subsidies and the unforeseen impact on global electricity demand as serious strikes against the EV’s future.

For every new electric car owner, there’s a learning curve, but most swiftly become proselytising converts. We’re converts too, for the most part, but bigger questions arise with wider take-up. Will charge points multiply as EV sales increase? Will tempting tax breaks and subsidies continue to offset the high cost of batteries? Will the urban landscape start to change as traditional gas stations and garages close in favour of a hub-and-spoke network of charge stations? Will electricity consumption spike ever upwards? 

Paradoxically, EVs won’t change the most problematic aspects of the car industry – how one car per person leads to gridlocked streets and vast swathes of the world given over to roads and parking. Most troublingly of all for car-makers, the Millennial generation could skip conventional cars altogether, instead choosing to embrace some future autonomous-Uber mash-up that would make private car ownership an anachronism. For all this investment, innovation and disruption, EVs could just result in another form of the status quo. And most manufacturers, we suspect, won’t have a problem with that.

As originally featured in the June Issue of Wallpaper* (W*207)

TAGS: TECHNOLOGY, TRANSPORT