Like it or not, the automobile is facing unprecedented adversity, standing nose-to-nose against dwindling oil reserves and polar icecaps melting like a Slurpee in July. An EV or hybrid is the ideal way to minimize consumption for a daily commute, yet many of us are struggling to hop on the alternative-fuel bandwagon. Why is our allegiance to conventional automobiles so intense? Can a love of internal-combustion outweigh common sense?
Tough questions, and Jonathan Kershaw may have some answers.
Kershaw is a social science researcher at Coventry University in England. He's an environmentalist, sure, but he's also an avid automotive enthusiast: Kershaw is midway through restoring a Triumph 1300, but admits that he's currently lusting after a Morgan Roadster or a "manual, no frills" Porsche 911.
This guy isn't your typical academic.
"I love cars. I've long been obsessed with cars, but we have a problem," he says. "We're facing an environmental imperative."
Kershaw understands the struggles of a modern car guy, and that's an aspect of his research.
He began by assembling and interviewing a focus group of local drivers about their experiences with the automobile. Kershaw noticed that, amongst other things, cars have taken on greater meaning as an 'aspirational tool.'
"I asked people, 'If you could have any vehicle to suit your needs, what would it be?' The answer wasn't far from the car they have now. But then I said, 'You've won the lottery. You can have any car. What'll you have?' They started throwing out Mercedes SL or Ferrari. Even to the average person, those are desirable."
According to Kershaw, that's because of how we 'consume' the automobile in society. Cars are an experience, cultural artifact, status symbol, icon and avatar. He wonders if consumption is a barrier to embracing the future of driving – what he calls 'low-carbon automobility.' Kershaw thinks that, for most motorists, overcoming an obstacle like range anxiety is simply a matter of being exposed to new technologies.
"Make the next generation early adapters. Get young drivers into hybrids and EVs. They'll come around," he says.
No argument here.
But for dedicated car guys, consumption can be a bigger investment of feelings and deeper meanings. You can probably recall that first encounter with an E-Type, or are currently struggling through the Five Stages of Grief as the manual transmission slowly becomes extinct.
"We, as enthusiasts, look at the car differently. It's more than just getting A to B," Kershaw explains, "and it's been claimed we're the hardest people to convince of change."
That doesn't mean car guys can't change, though. Kershaw points out that an Austin-Healy Sprite was desirable in the Sixties, but that today a car with 43 horsepower might seem "somehow not as manly." He cites Top Gear and the 'Clarksonian' horsepower-lust as indicative of this paradigm shift, but says that it's changing yet again.
"The new Caterham Seven will have a 660cc Suzuki engine with all of 80 horsepower. People are saying, 'Oh, this is brilliant! Back to the basics!' Small sports cars used to be the way to have maximum performance at low speeds, and the electric engine is best suited for that now. What if an EV were to herald the return of the small sports car?" Kershaw asks. "I'm not sure enthusiasts would necessarily be resistant."
So there isn't some sort of inherent stubbornness that comes with being a car guy. There is, however, a massive potential for the automobile's depiction in media (be it advertisement, film, or Top Gear) to influence consumption. According to Kershaw, a vehicle can say just as much about what you're not as what you are.
"To succeed, manufacturers need to make sexy green cars. As I learned in my research, people will want them if they're aspirational. Electric cars have been sold wrongly as just 'plant-saving' or 'something that's good for you.'"
Kershaw reminds us that, while authors may write books, it's readers that create a text – if the first EV you saw was a Tesla Model S instead of a Nissan Leaf, might you think of alternative-fuel cars differently?
Excluding Tesla's stellar sedan, mainstream EVs thus far have been primed for consumption on the merits of saving the planet, not as an exploitable performance technology. And when it comes to consuming the car, function and form aren't independent entities.
"We've just been shoving batteries into conventional cars; the Leaf was essentially the first mass-produced car designed to be electric from day one," says Kershaw. "I saw an electric-converted AC Cobra online and it just seemed wrong. We all know the way a Cobra should sound. Likewise, a GM EV1 with an internal-combustion engine would feel wrong. We've been conditioned. But look at batteries and electric motors: they afford a chance to do things completely differently."
He points to the initial Jaguar C-X75 Concept.
"It had those turbines that were so small. You can fit battery packs into whatever wormy shape you'd like. Imagine what you can do with the shape of a car. There are massive implications in the packaging. Look at some of some of these electric cars – certainly the smaller ones – people point and laugh at them. You could stop designing them in that conventional style."
What's happening now is akin to when engines first replaced horses; designers haven't had this much freedom since the dawn of motoring. Who's to say an EV has to be in a neat little Mitsubishi MiEV package? Why can't it look like a Mazda Furai, or something radical and new entirely?
Kershaw's research isn't completed yet, but our initial takeaway is that enthusiasts may be more averse to what hybrids and EVs currently represent than the technology itself. Per design, turbochargers increase fuel economy and quiet cars, too – but they aren't sold to car guys as such. This iteration of the quirky, benign hybrid isn't aspirational to enthusiast, but that doesn't mean an alternative-energy vehicle could never work for us.
So, can you learn to love a Prius? Maybe not – but if the next best-selling hybrid stood for something different than the last, it'd definitely be easier to try….
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