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.

Thoughts on the fatal Tesla Autopilot accident

Tesla describes the accident on its official blog as follows:

The vehicle was on a divided highway with Autopilot engaged when a tractor trailer drove across the highway perpendicular to the Model S. Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied. The high ride height of the trailer combined with its positioning across the road and the extremely rare circumstances of the impact caused the Model S to pass under the trailer, with the bottom of the trailer impacting the windshield of the Model S.

Above: Tesla Model S instrument cluster showing that Autopilot mode is active. 

Contrary to certain media reports, it is important to remember that using Autopilot mode does not make the Tesla a self-driving car. Not only is the Autopilot software itself still in beta testing (i.e. not ready for widespread public use), the driver is required to ensure their hands remain on the steering wheel at all times, and to be prepared to resume manual driving at any moment. Enabling Autopilot does not mean the driver can take their eyes off the road or lose awareness of their surrounding environment.

The New York Times article linked above later quotes Karl Brauer, an analyst with the American automotive research firm Kelly Blue Book:

This is a bit of a wake-up call,” Mr. Brauer said. “People who were maybe too aggressive in taking the position that we’re almost there, this technology is going to be in the market very soon, maybe need to reassess that.

Karl Brauer's statement needs to be placed into context. The vast majority of car accidents are caused at least in part by human error. So there is no doubt that when used as intended (as an assistive feature that warns the driver of any potential hazards, but over which the driver maintains full control), Tesla's Autopilot can only improve road safety. Citing a single misuse of Autopilot as a justification to call for all autonomous driving technologies to be re-assessed in terms of their safety and viability on the road is, frankly, misleading.

Nevertheless, it is clear that true driverless cars in the near future will be a significant enough departure from current vehicles that they will require their own set of regulations and governing laws. Perhaps a safety and regulations agency, in the vein of the Global NCAP, but for driverless cars, could be created to consolidate and ensure uniform regulations for autonomous vehicles? 

As tragic as it may be, it is also plain that the introduction of such technology will have teething issues, as society adapts to driverless vehicles, and that the consequences of these teething issues could involve fatal accidents. What is important, however, is for regulators and the media to not lose sight of the overall view that autonomous technologies are not detrimental to, but instead enhance, road and driver safety and are beneficial to society.

Thus, any future regulations relating to driverless vehicles must not be knee-jerk, impulsive reactions to accidents such as the imposition of bans or other widespread restrictions, but should instead empower the development of this new technology.