Although EV and PHEV sales in the United States continue at a pace that is better than disappointing, the budding enthusiasm for electric drive of a few years ago seems to be fading.  Serious concerns about the cost effectiveness of using EV’s and PHEV’s to reduce petroleum consumption and the efficacy of using EV’s and PHEV’s to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (considering the source of the electricity they use) have steadily undermined enthusiasm for electric drive among those who view it largely as an environmental proposition.

The one bright spot in the EV industry, Tesla Motors, has taken a different approach to promoting EV’s.  In listening to conversations at dinner parties, I am struck by the reason that relatively well-off suburbanites want to buy a Model S:  They want to buy one because it is cool.  What makes it cool is that it is a high tech vehicle with a lot of high tech amenities.  The fact that the Model S is an electric vehicle is part of what makes the vehicle high tech.  But the fact that the Model S is an electric vehicle is not itself the selling point.  I suspect that few of the suburban housewives I hear talking rhapsodically about the Model S would ever buy an EV just to own an EV.

It may be that Elon Musk has duplicated Steve Jobs’ feat of turning an item of technology into an item of fashion.  But more likely Elon has simply rediscovered why people buy a car: because they develop an emotional attachment to it.

There is a lesson in Tesla’s success that the rest of the electric drive industry should learn:  Selling EV’s and PHEV’s may be less about selling environmental benefits than about selling a sexy and exciting new technology.

If sexy and high tech is the way it needs to go, the EV industry needs to get serious about building that image.  Fortunately, it has a lot to work with.  EV’s really do have a lot more torque than comparably powered ICE’s and their lower center of gravity makes for better handling and a better driving experience.  The fact that EV’s are also cleaner and quieter is a bonus, though perhaps not the principal point.

Promoting the new, sexy, high tech image of electric drive is something the EV industry needs to get behind.  The new FIA Formula E Championship racing series therefore bears consideration.  The Formula E championship features single-seater cars powered exclusively by electric energy. Commencing in September 2014 through to June 2015, the championship will compete on the streets of 10 of the world's leading cities, including Beijing, Los Angeles and London.

Motor races, particularly those that take place on city streets (think Monaco Grand Prix), are expensive, high risk events.  But they are also high visibility events that convey an image of sex, power and high technology.  In the case of Formula E, it might also take on a nationalistic element (i.e., can an American-made battery (after receiving billions of dollars of federal government support) outperform one made in China, Japan or Korea?).

The future of electric drive may lie in playing to its inherent performance advantages over internal combustion engines and its emotional appeal as an exciting new technology.  If so, companies other than Tesla need to step up and start driving that message home with consumers.

Photo Credit: Rebranding Electric Drive/shutterstock