Build from scratch or convert to an electric vehicle?

Rachel Burgess, writing for Autocar:

"Which is wisest? The use of a single electric platform must make engineering infinitely easier, rather than heavily adapting existing architectures. But the obvious upside of offering electric variants of existing models is the equity of that model’s name. Aren’t you much more likely to buy a well-regarded model that just happens to have an electric powertrain rather than an unknown?"

Re-engineering a combustion engine car to fit an electric powertrain appears to be the pragmatic option in terms of retaining brand awareness and minimising the cost and time taken to develop the car. In 2020, the ordinary consumer will know exactly what a VW e-Golf is; namely a compact, affordable five door hatchback with an electric powertrain. How many of those consumers, in contrast, will know what a VW I.D. is? I would wager far less than the e-Golf.

What is even more clear, however, is that the electric powertrain is fundamentally different from that of a combustion engined car. A car with a powertrain so different from its combustion engined counterpart must, in turn, be built from scratch in a fundamentally different manner in order to reap the maximum benefits of the electric powertrain.

Consider the remarkable Tesla Model S, for example. The Model S is able to offer peerless acceleration and best in class safety and practicality (with a 'frunk' and large rear boot) because, not despite, it being been built and designed from the ground up for an electric powertrain. Could Tesla have saved time and money buying an existing, conventional mid-size platform and chassis from any number of manufacturers and then refitting an electric motor, akin to the original Tesla Roadster? Of course. But would it have enabled the same levels of practicality, performance and safety as a new, specially engineered ground up design? Most likely not.

The Tesla story goes to show that tailored design and engineering can create a substantially better product than an ostensibly easier 'swap engine for electric motor' approach. Famously, Tesla has undertaken little to no marketing of the Model S. How often do you see a print, television or web advertisement of a Tesla vehicle? Yours truly has certainly never seen one, and yet the Model S and upcoming Model 3 are the talk of the town. For Tesla at least, the fact of the matter is that its approach to electric vehicle design and engineering has developed vehicles so substantively better than the competition that traditional marketing is unnecessary and word-of-mouth alone is enough. 

Word-of-mouth has long been known to be the most effective form of marketing. After all, are you more likely to believe a company's own advertisement or the recommendation of a trusted friend or family member? Ultimately, this solves the challenge posed by Burgess in the quoted Autocar article. With tailored design and engineering producing a substantially better product, the car will market itself and eventually create a greater brand equity than if the manufacturer had chosen a conventional 'engine swap' approach.

Tesla Model S P100D

From the Tesla press release:

The Model S P100D with Ludicrous mode is the third fastest accelerating production car ever produced, with a 0-60 mph time of 2.5 seconds. However, both the LaFerrari and the Porsche 918 Spyder were limited run, million dollar vehicles and cannot be bought new. While those cars are small two seaters with very little luggage space, the pure electric, all-wheel drive Model S P100D has four doors, seats up to 5 adults plus 2 children and has exceptional cargo capacity.

The 100 kWh battery also increases range substantially to an estimated 315 miles on the EPA cycle and 613 km on the EU cycle, making it the first to go beyond 300 miles and the longest range production electric vehicle by far.

It is incredible that the fastest accelerating vehicle you can currently purchase is not an exclusive, multimillion dollar sports car, but a practical family sedan with spacious luggage storage and comfortable seating for five. I can't think of a car where the phrase 'you can have your cake and eat it too' is more apt.

It's noteworthy that, with only a decade of development, a small, startup-like company is producing vehicles that have all but overtaken combustion engine powered cars not only in terms of performance, but in practicality and safety as well. This, more than anything, is evidence that the internal combustion engine is on its way out. We're only just getting started with electric vehicle development, and it's already obvious that the fundamental technology is an order of magnitude better than any fossil fuel powered car before it.

Having said that, electric vehicles will not sell on the virtue of being electric cars alone. Why has Tesla succeeded when other electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf, despite being thousands of dollars cheaper, have failed? Because the Tesla is a great car, a product the consumer aspires to own. The Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, is a showcase of the potential of electric vehicles. But is it a great car? No.

Manufacturers must ensure that electric vehicles, first and foremost, are great cars. The design must take full advantage of the electric powertrain, and the company must also go to the effort of providing supporting infrastructure to alleviate any perceived shortcomings such as range anxiety. To this extent, the electric vehicle cannot be sold as a 'trophy' car used to demonstrate a company's or the consumer's ostensible commitment to the environment, but rather must be a vehicle that is sustainable, livable, and is practical enough to be used every day (and of course is envrionmentally friendly). Tesla has done this by going to the effort of developing an extensive network of 'Supercharger' fast charging points, and by using the extra space offered by the electric motor to substantially increase luggage space and safety via a 'front boot' and a much larger crumple zone.

Every electric vehicle will be more environmentally friendly than its combustion engine counterpart. Of course it will, as that is the innate nature of the powertrain itself. But what will distinguish a successful electric vehicle is whether it is a great car. At the moment, only Tesla, and perhaps BMW with its i3 and i8, meet this standard.

An electric car being environmentally friendly will be as much of a selling point in the future as a petrol car having fuel injection is today. Effectively null.