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10/29/2009
03:04 PM
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Does Driving Electric Need To Mimic Combustion?

I've read that most of the plug-in electric vehicles under development have been designed to mimic the "feel" of driving a combustion engine car. I'm not sure that's even possible, and I don't know why they'd try.

I've read that most of the plug-in electric vehicles under development have been designed to mimic the "feel" of driving a combustion engine car. I'm not sure that's even possible, and I don't know why they'd try.Is consistency of experience an adoption driver for new technologies?

That's what drove a lot of the imagined breakthroughs of the past. The Royal Society thought that balloons could be used to make horse-drawn carriages lighter. Early airplane models had wings that were sometimes feathered and always flapped (though never fast enough). Most visions of a technical future are extrapolations of current technology, only with some whimsy added. Personal hovercraft...that sort of thing.

Perhaps "better" is different than, well, "different." Cell phones needed to look like older models because folks were used to making calls holding a thingee to their ear and mouth. We didn't start getting phones shaped like decks of cards until many years later. Similarly, web pages first looked like they'd been created for print production on a light table. Truly different technologies, like .mp3 music, had no requirement to look or feel like the stuff they replace; folks have no problem hearing music plugged into a stick of gum.

I'm not convinced that electric cars need to feel like non-electric ones, but the manufacturers have made their choice. Electric engines deliver full torque literally at the push of a button, so they have the potential to accelerate faster than any but the most highly-tuned racing engines. Yet this has been decided to be too different from old-fashioned acceleration, so the cars' speed will be metered.

Humm. Is it important that the electric engines make a faux putt-putt noise (I remember sitting in a Prius at a stoplight in Tokyo a few years ago and worrying that the thing had died)? What about the fumes related to the car experience, whether foetid air conditioner blast or whiff of gas or exhaust? How about leatherette seats, so we can get reminded of those 1970s land cruisers?

I'm sure there's been a ton of moolah spent on researching this question, but I wonder how far they'll go to make the electrics drive like older cars. It could be a chance to define a new business. Plug-ins could present a totally new experience, yielding different uses and benefits. Crawling up to speed on the highway might not be a desired brand quality.

I think the real driver of purchase will be cost, feelings or not. Let's hope they'll mimic that attribute of historically successful car brands. Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, writes the Dim Bulb blog, and is the author of Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs.

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