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business models, strategies and technologies

Where lieth the real EV innovation narrative?

Much real electric vehicle innovation has little to do with the motor or battery technology inside. Technical breakthroughs don’t mean much if the primary conceptual narrative is stuck in a mindset from Henry Ford days.

Narratives beneath the surface

It’s all too easy to think of electric vehicles simply as newer-tech versions of their century-old internal combustion engine counterparts – just with a different kind of push machine inside and underneath. Most EV designs deliberately maintain that premise, sticking to the ages-long comfort zone of shape, layout and function to help make sure familiarity wins over any technical scepticism or market reticence.

The conventional prime narrative involves whether or not we consumer sheep swap out one type of vehicle with another – or how quickly we do it. In practice, the main driver for such FMCG purchasing decisions usually lies in superficial, from-the-script renditions of “electric is good” memes that we’re spoon-fed via omnipresent journalistic and PR over-simplifications. However, the real “story” is considerably more complex – and very different from traditional automotive industry narratives. I’m actually considering what to buy/access as my next car, but the entire narrative field seems weak, cliché-ridden and confusing. So I thought I’d explore how far such narratives could extend, and in which direction(s). As Amara’s law states,

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”

Hail Henry Ford

Modern manufacturing owes a heavy debt to the assembly line model that Henry Ford pioneered in 1913, ushering in a whole era for mass-producing cars. This manufacturing configuration later came to be used for countless other vehicle types, as well as for other forms of hardware manufactured/assembled in many different industries.

More than a century later, this sequential manufacturing production line is still the dominant engineering precept, a mindset and metaphor that have coloured the way just about everybody thinks about production processes and the end products that emerge from these, as an additive accumulation of equipment and fixtures – with the sourcing of these being a separate logistical concern. Beyond such linear conceptualisation of the production line, there is also the whole standard perception of vehicle architecture featuring the engine-and-wheels technical layout that most of us take for granted – allocating where the strength lies, where the functionality comes from, which materials can be used and how they can all be put together.

Nowadays there is almost always a whole layer of electronics on top of the mechanical cake, the motor(s) may now be electric, with batteries at the bottom, but very little else about what EVs look like or how they are put together has really changed much. Tweaking the details doesn’t rethink the basics.

New narrative(s) needed

We seem to be close to an inflection point at which the transition to electric (and/or hydrogen-powered) vehicles will accelerate rapidly. But without a close inspection of what’s really involved beneath the design skin and the largely non-critical superficiality of journalistic coverage, we risk merely replicating many of the drawbacks of the manufacturing, technology, materials and logistics ecosystems that underpin the internal combustion motor vehicle. And most of these are rooted in societal perspectives, technical assumptions and practical realities/compromises that’re now more than a century old – and surely ready for the proverbial scrapheap of technological discourse.

New capabilities, technologies and perspectives are now available, but they aren’t going to get much traction if they don’t feature in our general, shared understandings of how big a technical and conceptual step EVs can be. These shared understandings – however incorrect, ill-informed or generally ignorant they may be – provide the basis for the myriad of large and small decisions that will mould our shared future. Without such appreciation, we’ll be stuck in a legacy mindset going nowhere, while dazzled by the EV badging icing on the cake as if that were a guarantee of paradigm change in automotive engineering.

Tesla – rethinks galore

As the first volume manufacturer of electric cars, and the only first-generation mainstream success not to have emerged from an old-school car company, Tesla rethought many things about car design and capabilities, and how to manufacture these with clean-sheet effectiveness. The Musk machine’s remarkable ability to reconsider some of the basic assumptions about what a car is – and what it can do – was the source of bucketloads of initial scepticism and badmouthing, but has also fuelled a breakthrough success that astonished many. It has also made Tesla the biggest carmaker in the world by market value – here in 2020 worth more than a billion dollars. Hardly surprising that the Tesla share price rose by 524% in the first 11 months of 2020, and was added to the S&P Index as its fifth-largest constituent with a right-now market capitalisation north of USD 500 billion.

Tesla has addressed many of the car industry’s traditional-but-long-accepted failings, with solutions that have upended the business model from many different angles. One mundane, non-tech example relates to the traditional dealer system for vehicle sales, whereby the entire relationship between you and the car manufacturer brand is mediated through a distancing/differentiation filter – the dealer that shows and sells you the vehicle is responsible for processing any complaints, as well as for diagnosing and fixing your purchase if/when it goes wrong. Such a dealer system results in an unholy marriage between the phases of the user experience before purchase, when everything is hunky-dory and full of sales hype and positive expectations – and afterwards – when the dealer is most interested in limiting his liabilities and costs, and benefits from making sure that whatever happens to the car is kept as mostly your problem and your expense. In the traditional model, both these phases are beyond the manufacturer’s direct, immediate control.

The Tesla disintermediation business model (being copied by many others, including Polestar Spaces) brings all the different selection, decision-making, purchasing and service experiences together into one coherent, software-driven whole – made easier because there is so much less to actually go wrong with a car when most of the clunky traditional mechanical, hydraulic and electro-mechanical systems have been reconsidered, re-engineered and replaced.

Good design isn’t about pretty or ugly

Interiors and interaction

The most user-obvious – but largely journalistically overlooked – feature of Tesla innovation lies in the whole idea about what a vehicle interior can and should look like. All the visual mish-mash of shapes, materials and operating mechanisms in conventional interiors has been done away with, and a single big computer screen is enough to operate almost everything. This is far from just a gimmick or snazzy design feature, because it also paves the way to new perceptions of what a car is, and of how humans interact with the hardware. Using this kind of approach, the computers, built-in sensors and other electronic systems become visibly and conceptually central to the car’s capabilities, perhaps paving the way to much-vaunted (semi-)autonomous driving but also to

Faff-free Tesla interior (Getty Images)

the unprecedented feeling that the product you purchased a while ago is actually improving over time (rather than depreciating and wobbling towards obsolescence), as a result of wireless connection to a neural network that learns from manual activations made by all users of the marque, segueing into ongoing software updates. Of course, some Tesla upgrades are about entertainment and leisure, but at heart they are more than merely cosmetic because they represent a whole new user interaction experience for an achingly familiar hardware product like a car.

This software-centric approach is the exact opposite of conventional cars, which rapidly and resolutely deteriorate over time. No traditional carmaker has ever offered performance and capabilities that visibly improve over time on a product they’ve already sold – let alone do it for free. Ultimately, you don’t buy a Tesla car: you buy a software platform that is constantly updated and improved, while problem diagnoses, bug fixes and software resets can be done remotely – with no need for time-consuming, bothersome visits to an expensive by-the-hour mechanic.

All of this sounds very positive while the technology is new. But what will happen when one (or more) of the key software/hardware standards or technologies changes, or simply becomes unobtainable or obsolete? One possible indicator of future situations is that the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in January 2021 wanted Tesla to recall 158,000 Model S and Model X dated 2012–2018 because of possible defects/limitations with a particular computer chip. The once-exciting car-as-software narrative can quickly devolve into waves of bug nightmares and electronic obsolescence never yet experienced in the automotive world, with swathes of vehicles partly or wholly incapacitated, immobilised and devalued by software incompatibilities and moribund chip architectures.

Manufacturing mojo – or ball and chain

It took a goodly while to get over beginner’s issues, but the highly automated Tesla production lines were able to almost completely discard legacy thinking ·- with remarkable success. The clean-slate Tesla manufacturing mindset and the way it has been implemented have given the company gross profit margins way higher than conventional auto builders, however automated these may now be. This in turn has enabled Tesla to undertake research and investment into bucketloads of other margin-improving, marketing-differentiation innovations.

There have since been multiple large-scale improvements to the overall Tesla manufacturing setup, including:

  • ditching the use of many industrial robots for key assembly processes, and replacing them with huge “Giga Presses” that turn what was seventy parts in a Model 3 into just two parts in a Model Y
  • “the most advanced paint shop” at its factory in Berlin in order to provide new multi-layered paint options
  • an advanced position in battery design, including readying a “million-mile” battery to slice the cost of EVs
  • Tesla vehicles as part of a complete energy ecosystem, featuring photovoltaic roofs, battery storage and EVs.

However, the real essence of the Tesla technical edge lies in the remarkably innovative design engineering and integrated engineering solutions behind the manufacturing. This results in a game-changer degree of cross-functional and vertical integration between different systems and sub-systems – as pointed out by the redoubtable Sandy Munro (“The Teardown Titan”) and his Lean Design engineering teardowns team at Munro & Associates. Combined with rapid, relentless iteration to ensure incremental efficiencies that provide constant, ongoing cost reductions, the focus is on the meticulously planned highly automated manufacturing behind the EV product, rather than the traditional product-centric approach.

However, the downside of this Tesla business model also lies in the company’s near-total reliance on these huge gigafactories – now in the US, China and Germany. These depend on massive logistics chains for materials and components, and for then transporting the completed cars out to customers all over the world. The geopolitical, pandemic-related and logistical vulnerabilities of manufacturing setups that rely on limited-source high-tech components from around the world have become highly visible in recent years, which have witnessed debilitating breakdowns, blockages and embargoes in global supply chains.

All this calls many conventional engineering dictums into question.

Rewriting the manufacturing playbook

However, when compared with the approach chosen by (for example) “zero-emission mobility solutions” provider Arrival, the Tesla gigafactory engineering approach – despite all its apparent sophistication, efficiency and automation – seems like a last, dying-gasp relic of the old-school manufacturing mindset it’s claiming to replace.

Microfactory assembly is … an essential part of what makes our vehicles unique

By contrast, Arrival explains that its electric vans and buses are manufactured using smaller, cheaper “microfactories” featuring robots and cell-based assembly, instead of the traditional production-line model. Such microfactories can (apparently) be up and running in six months or so, and at relatively limited cost. The idea is that a company can add new output hardware only as needed, purchasing additional manufacturing capacity in small increments as its sales grow and its financial wherewithal develops.

Each microfactory then serves a particular urban area and its community – sourcing locally and developing vehicles customised for use in that specific region. These vehicles can then be manufactured close to their end markets, making it easier to scale up any chosen engineering setup to meet any particular market requirement. Localising the supply chain also helps reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing, and makes the EV far more than just a vehicle/product/object – it can be a transformative dynamo for a whole community or catchment area. Not sure how this would work in practice, but it’s a crucial new business model as well as a seriously disruptive mindset in the world of (EV) manufacturing.

from Arrival website

Arrival racked up significant orders early on in its existence. US-based delivery company UPS ordered 10,000 electric vans in January 2020 (with an option on 10,000 more) as part of its efforts to decarbonise its urban deliveries and thereby establish a new “right-to-exist” business model. Arrival’s subsequent financial progress and management turbulence seem to have been decidedly problematic, but the intellectual property remains interesting and valid as an alternative, innovative narrative for EV manufacturing.

Photograph: Arrival

Suddenly an EV and its design are no longer defined by line, curve or visual elegance, but by the “purpose” and mindset behind the manufacturing processes and environmental ethos used to make it. That’s a new angle on automotive engineering and design. As Watt Electric Vehicles so aptly points out when hanging out its value-proposition shingle:

The automotive world’s move to electric vehicles requires a paradigm shift in engineering

Platforming a path to a credible EV narrative?

In the world of engineering and consumer purchases, there’s always been a natural tendency to focus on the hardware – the tangibles. One way to rethink the EV narrative is to focus on such vehicles as either functional or technical platforms, rather than individual products, models or designs. This is particularly true for mass-produced EVs, which are usually based on modular “skateboard” designs.

As one example of platform thinking, General Motors is apparently set to launch 30 new electric vehicles in the period up to 2025 via its Ultium battery technical platform, whereas any success for such hardware initiatives will revolve around the value proposition provided by the user platform, consisting of practical applications, customer experiences and the economics of day-to-day operation.

Reflecting this, at the 2021 Consumer Electronics Show, GM announced – as part of its EV-centric strategy for the future – a spin-off company named BrightDrop that’s configured to provide a “one-stop shop ecosystem” intended to make commercial delivery processes in their entirety easier, more cost-effective and more environmentally responsible. Here the electric vans used to decarbonise the last mile for delivering goods and services are only one tool among many in a complete system or functionality platform – one that is only as strong as its weakest link.

Using a different platform approach, Watt Electric Vehicle Company Ltd in the UK is trying to establish itself as the modular platform of choice for sustainable lightweight commercial and passenger EVs, under its own brand name as well as providing OEM manufacturing services for other companies. Clean Motion in Sweden seems to be deploying much the same fleet-centric approach, within a different delivery vehicle category.

A third example of platform thinking to describe the overall EV narrative comes from Australian company Janus Electric and its Janus Electrification Ecosystem. This company’s approach focuses on converting existing heavy vehicles and road transport fleets (well, Australian ones, at least) to electric propulsion using existing electrical grid infrastructure combined with special swappable battery packs. The batteries are quickly swapped at special stations, powered wherever possible by renewable energy sources such as solar, wind or hydro. Significantly, this renewable-energy-focused setup is linked to the Australian national grid, providing flexible, energy-efficient combinations of storage, offloading and recharging as part of a much wider societal planning narrative about electrification, in which large commercial EVs are just one component – which happens to move – in a complex infrastructure narrative. Janus itself claims/estimates that converting existing diesel-powered trucks using Janus Electric technology can reduce capital costs for fleet electrification by as much as 70%. Such numbers could be a significant driver for the uptake of EV technology in a market segment in which any “green transition” changes have a significant emissions-reduction impact.

From the Janus Electric website

Selling the crown jewels?

EV manufacturing as an “idea” also has other big knock-on consequences. According to the Financial Times, Geely – the successful Chinese carmaker that also owns Volvo, Polestar and Lotus – has created a new process for building electric vehicles, aiming to be one of a handful of platforms that’ll dominate the industry in the coming years. Geely is willing to sell its “transformative” EV tech directly to its rivals and competitors. This then repositions the Geely core capabilities as being a technology developer, rather than an essentially old-school car manufacturer jumping through well-established hoops (regardless of the largely positive press garnered to date by its EV product portfolios).

There are similar “bigger picture” thoughts afoot at once-mighty General Motors. GM’s EV-centric strategy is closely linked to a strategy for the digital transformation of the entire enterprise and everything it stands for. “We can accelerate our EV plans because we are rapidly building a competitive advantage in batteries, software, vehicle integration, manufacturing and customer experience,” declares GM.

When the vehicle manufacturing process becomes just one small cog in a much larger set of gears and a small part of a much more important societal and engineering narrative, the individual EV design or product becomes merely one “symptom” among many and a product outcome that is in itself only marginal and of little real interest – rather than constituting an entire industrial paradigm and a core tenet of innovative manufacturing thinking.

Rethinking the battery narrative

The thing about EVs is that the real discussion about cost, capabilities and responsible business often lies in the battery technology and its repercussions, rather than the outer shell or the vehicle itself. This battery technology setup at the heart of all EVs inevitably also has substantial environmental impacts at both ends of its life cycle, and neither of these aspects is usually included in the mainstream narrative about a  manufacturer’s or an EV product’s “green credentials”.

EV batteries – usually the most expensive part of the vehicle – can make or break any carmaker’s bottom line as well as its ESG credibility. Much of the “good” side of the overall battery narrative comes from the conventional no-emissions green transition to electrical capabilities, while most of the “evil” aspects stem from the burdens of sourcing the raw materials for batteries, and the ways we subsequently manufacture, use and recover/recycle them. With EVs, very little is as green as it’s publicly cracked up to be.

The thing is that the entire EV market rests on a technology premise with a crucial flaw/weakness: the sourcing as well as the end-of-life processing of millions of tons of unsustainable, potentially hazardous and environmentally catastrophic batteries. Recycling experts estimate that the EVs purchased in 2019 alone will eventually generate 500,000 metric tons of end-of-life battery waste. Various kinds of recovery and recycling facilities are being built to alleviate such impacts and justify the current EV technical/business model – Northvolt, Veolia, FortumHydrovolt in Norway and Li-Cycle in the US are some recent examples.

However, it actually makes more sense to trash and recycle the (now relatively simple) car structure and to put the real effort into repurposing the depleted EV batteries for second-life duties – rather than the vice versa conventional wisdom. That’s why companies that include Nissan and Renault have run pilot tests to determine whether partially depleted EV batteries could be used for various kinds of energy storage and buffering coupled to national electric grids. With the increasing interest in battery energy storage systems (BESS) as an integral part of any resilient zero-carbon energy infrastructure, companies such as B2U Storage Solutions seem an increasingly practical solution to the “problem” of end-of-life EV battery handling challenges. But however meritorious such initiatives may be, they’re essentially just postponing the inevitable day of environmental reckoning.

EV as battery platform

A lot of the mainstream discourse about EVs and their core innovation revolves around manufacturers’ range promises – and the credibility of these marketing-driven statements. This discussion, in turn, rests upon the state of commercially viable battery technology at any given time. Quartz provides a good 2019 review of the battery revolution and the (then-)current state of play here. And there are widespread 2020 reports that Tesla is readying a long-mythical “million mile” battery that’d pave the way to significantly lowering the crucial cost-per-kilowatt-hour of EVs, as well as significantly improving the overall user case.

Nio claims a whopping 150-kWh pack using a high-density solid-state technology is production-ready for its ET7 vehicles by the end of 2022, while GM has declared that it expects to commercialise the most exotic of the current stretch ideas for batteries – metallic lithium – by mid-decade. Pure metallic lithium has been the subject of a decades-long global technology race, and companies like QuantumScape now seem ready to deliver solid-state batteries using this technology to enable EVs to charge faster, go farther, last longer and operate more safely. So the goalposts move yet again …

One other difficulty with basing the core EV narrative on battery technology – in its familiar “battery packs” format and the skateboard configuration for new-build EVs – is that many carmakers are apparently already interested in ditching battery packs in favour of using the otherwise essentially non-functional vehicle bodies for energy storage. This involves moving beyond Tesla’s and Volvo’s ideas about structural batteries to an engineering model in which heavy, bulky embedded batteries can be done away with entirely, and the body material itself serves as the capability provider for energy storage.

The core problem with mainstream narratives about EV battery technology, however, is that the latest and hottest emerging from the world’s R&D labs at any given time is usually soon either leapfrogged or relegated to the technology history books by complex combinations of expediency, cost, convenience and industrial politics. Practical implementation at scale cannot keep up with the pace of technological innovation.

The elephant in the room is that technophile battery fabulists are many, but commercial implementation always lags well behind fast-moving technical development, while the popular perceptions that drive individual purchasing decisions – both commercial and consumer – lag even further back in the fogs of prejudice, misinformation and technical ignorance.

This all means it’s probably fatal to build any credible, long-term EV narrative on any particular format or configuration of battery technology. Any marketing statement or set of specifications will almost certainly be out-of-date or commercially irrelevant by the time it’s percolated down into the realities of the EV ecosystem or any form of public consciousness about capabilities and performance.

As just one example, batteries have for centuries been the purview of chemistry and materials science – “proper engineering”. But companies like Bioo in Spain and technologies like the Hybrid Microbial Fuel Cell are already exploring the first opportunities provided by biochemical manipulation to provide biological batteries and biological switches. If these mature and prove commercially viable as well as scalable, such innovations would kybosh any core EV narratives based on different kinds of chemical batteries – regardless of how much these are currently being hyped.

Bodies versus mechanicals

In EVs, battery capabilities are actually way more important than the vehicle itself – the car-as-we-know-it has really just become window dressing/visual packaging plonked on top of the battery pack, some electronics, an electric motor or two, a few electro-mechanical gubbins, and a certain number of wheels. Designwise, this might even presage a return to the early days of automotive design, when cars were sold as mechanical packages and chassis structures, upon which craftsmen coachbuilders could then work their creative, customer-centric magic to meet individual preferences and predilections. There seem to be ample contemporary opportunities for this development path, thanks to readily available low-cost digital tools and automated production processes that together level the cost playing field for individualised products and configurations. This would also seem to provide a flourishing opportunity and new growth conditions for the many small “cottage” industries once associated with motoring, so many of which were killed off by the accelerating technical complexity of proprietary solutions along with worldwide manufacturing and brand consolidation.

Disembodied design has already been done the other way round, with retro-modernist vehicle modification companies like Icon 4×4 placing new chassis, engines, drivetrains, running gear and digital functionalities under much-loved old shapes and bodywork, repurposed for the modern era. The Icon retro-modernist shop and its head design honcho Jonathan Ward are now even tinkering with retrofitting some of its selected gems with suitably re-considered and optimised electric powertrains.

Another possible business model alternative – also possibly applicable for EVs – was provided by Local Motors, an American company focused on low-volume manufacturing of open-source vehicle designs using multiple microfactories. The products were essentially kit cars (because of the US legislative restrictions on build-your-own) and buyers had to go to one of the company’s microfactories to take part in the assembly process, with all the customisation that made possible. Local Motors later transitioned to 3D-printed vehicles, but the business model proved to be neither scalable nor financially viable. However, the model seems even better suited to dressing up EV skateboard packages, and would provide a dramatically different narrative for pinning EV opportunities in the consumer mindset.

Local Motors car

Bottom up or top down?

Something similar is happening with the growing market for electric versions of existing vehicles – a market niche often characterised by a focus on relatively well-off owners of classic cars seeking an acceptable future for their beloved passion possession. There’s a reasonable (2021) overview of the US market for EV retrofit/conversions here, but this entire market is in constant flux, with many startups quickly blinking in and out of existence. Current practitioners of this new automotive practice, aiming at a variety of specialist market segments, include:

Retrofitting, upcycling and future-proofing the colossal worldwide pool of existing ICE vehicles to electric power makes obvious commercial sense in terms of potential market size. Repurposing existing hardware also aligns well with the common sense logic of avoiding scrapping vast amounts of existing hardware in favour of (probably unrealistic) clean-slate electrification, at the same time as piggybacking comfortably on all the traditional perceptions of what cars should look like, and how old-school aficionados perceive their innate value and tickle their nostalgia gene.

It’s arguable that this could give birth to a new motoring/mobility narrative that’s exclusive to this particular market segment of upcycled EVs, featuring as-you-like-it customisation and bespoke solutions made practically possible and financially feasible by adroit mixes of old-fashioned craftsmanship side by side with new thinking and digitally driven automation, manufacturing and 3D printing. RBW Classic Electric Cars‘ take on this kind of business model is explained below.

All this represents the kind of EV narrative that’s simply catnip for traditional motoring journalists and tech nerds aplenty. Attractive though this approach may be, however, the entire retrofit engineering approach cannot be scaled up in its present form, and can only be ultra-marginal in the wider scheme of things. There are also all kinds of homologation/safety issues – unbridled individualism and technical anarchy don’t usually fare well in our highly regulated societies. And as long as this business model only involves converting one old clunker at a time, it does nothing to address the planet-wide impacts of our ongoing ICE (mis-)use – which is/was (supposedly) the whole point of electrification.

Nevertheless, this upcycling model provides an interesting, easy-to-sell bottom-up market narrative featuring customisation, individual choice, technical freedom and design heritage that’s in stark contrast to the traditional top-down model of companies like Tesla simply informing us what we can even consider buying – from a very restricted list of rigidly ring-fenced options, in a situation painfully reminiscent of Henry Ford days. In the 2020 US market, one Tesla model alone (the Model 3) accounted for about one-third of all the electric vehicles delivered. However wonderful people might consider Tesla engineering etc., what will the EV take-up rates be when one basic engineering ethos and design language is everywhere? Tesla has abolished “differentiation by versioning/badging”, but regardless of how well-manufactured or technically proficient their EVs may be, how is a bland, ubiquitous visual market position going to fare in a consumer market where for over a century your car/EV has served as an eloquent expression of personal/familial status, taste, identity, style, coolness, masculinity, class, differentiation and much more?

Is the EV narrative of the future aiming at democratic individualism and new-era micro-thinking, or at one-size-fits-all macro-solutions and traditional mass production? Does an EV owner want to be – and be perceived as – a discerning, thoughtful lone wolf expressing taste – or a mass-market sheep in a very large herd?

Rewriting the materials narrative

There’s yet another standard truism about EV design that’s difficult to dispel. Cars (and other vehicles) have almost always been mostly made of different metals (well, with some wood in there in the early days). Metals provide strength and solidity as well as providing us mere mortals and our gullible psychological squishiness with a sense of safety and protection. A broad, evolving palette of metals and alloys have remained the staple materials for drivetrains, suspensions, wheels and bodywork, as well as most other mechanical, hydraulic and electrical components.

The introduction of plastics and then high-strength composites began to alter this perception, but the plastic era mostly covered interiors, covers and non-essentials. Changes were mostly on a one-to-one component basis, aimed at saving weight and cutting costs but without altering the core business model. But that materials narrative could change, to include a wide range of “soft” and/or composite materials that can be 3D printed, applied and manufactured using techniques from specialist fields not previously used in conventional vehicle manufacturing. This would considerably alter the environmental impact of vehicle manufacturing (as distinct from vehicle operations).

The basic design used in almost all EVs – the “skateboard” at the bottom, onto which virtually all the key systems and capabilities are mounted – opens up new opportunities with regard to materials used in bodywork and interior structures, because these no longer need to provide the same kinds of structural or protective capabilities. Design avenues and engineering capabilities such as engineered fabrics, knitted mesh technologies and electronic textiles are relatively unexplored in mainstream vehicle design – probably influenced by the restrictive power of popular perceptions. But exploring the use of such materials could have big effects on a new EV narratives that’d be a long way from traditional metal-box marketing.

One example is the EDAG Light Cocoon concept, a sports car featuring a weatherproof fabric skin stretched over a built-for-strength 3D-printed skeletal frame – it’s YouTube’d here. Essentially, it’s not a new idea – Weymann Fabric Bodies were a patented design system popular for cars in the 1920s–1930s! And in 2008 BMW Group Design was working with the GINA principle (Geometry and Functions In “N” Adaptions) to explore ideas about flexible textile covers stretched across a moveable substructure.

Another example of the possibilities of the materials narrative, as part of an even wider market disruption perspective, comes from Volta Trucks – manufacturer of the attention-grabbing Volta Zero, Europe’s first all-electric commercial cargo transporter. The body panels of this range of vehicles are (apparently) made from engineered biocomposites in the form of renewable biodegradable resins and flax fibres, so that at least the visible structure of the truck itself is (allegedly) fully sustainable. This gives rise to a very different kind of EV sub-narrative, one that moves even further away from the old-school automotive world order.

EV as computing platform

Another EV narrative that is important – but unlikely to gain much traction, ‘cos it ain’t bog news in our determinedly digital era – lies in perceiving and describing EVs as computing platforms. Many of Tesla’s initial strengths and successes (and its early-days high-profile forays into the once-pivotal idea of autonomous vehicles, but currently parked and widely pigeon-holed as a probable boondoggle) stemmed from the vehicles’ abilities to collect data – which was the real fuel for the Tesla development process.

As a concrete example, a Tesla-rival EV such as the Nio ET7 features (according to the manufacturer) no fewer than 33 environmental sensors, including an ultra-long-range high-resolution LiDAR, seven 8 MP high-resolution cameras, four 3 MP light-sensitive surround-view cameras, one ADMS (Advanced Driver Monitoring System), five millimeter-wave radars, 12 ultrasonic sensors, GPS, IMU and V2X. Apparently, these together can generate as much as 8 GB of data per second.

One of the key steps in designing an EV therefore lies in designing the computer architecture and configuring the computing power necessary for any level of FSD as well as driver assistance systems, performance monitoring and diagnostics, capability updates, control and safety systems, entertainment systems and communication setups – all of which directly depend on the vehicle’s onboard data processing and management capabilities. This means data architecture and data-crunching power are really the modern equivalent of ICE horsepower (along with the energy density and the cost per kWh of the batteries installed).

But if computing power is to become any significant part of the overall EV narrative, it has to be exceptionally reliable, idiot-proof and future-compatible, as well as having a long service life and ensuring near-bulletproof data security – both now and in the longer term. Early Tesla media-console units (MCU) issues were a major buyer disincentive/EV credibility killer, and any modern EV with computer issues is essentially a dead, worthless EV.

Abdicating the technical narrative – EV ignorance

The motoring ecosystem and its Janus-faced money-spinning PR machine – both commercial and consumer-centric – has long wallowed in a somewhat dubious role as interpreter and explainer of technical details, with journalists of somewhat dubious impartiality and agendas providing many different “content markets” with accounts of the user experience to which we mere mortals would never otherwise have access.

Mainstream examinations of aspects of different possible EV narratives seem to be seriously lacking in technical considerations of the electric motors, software controllers, heat exchangers and other key EV hardware that can make key differences for EV performance, usefulness profiles and operating reliability. An EV motor is not just any off-the-shelf electric motor – each manufacturer uses its own special design(s) (often outsourced) – so it seems strange that media reviews of EVs rarely delve much deeper than brief mentions of the mere number of electric motors, and the output they’re designed to give. This is a bit like a century of summarising and pigeonholing ICEs in terms of engine horsepower. The electric motors used to power EVs are usually “software sealed” as well as being heavily dependent on various forms of engine management systems that control all aspects of how they operate. This makes it paradoxical that there’s very little serious digging into details – and in particular the differentiation – in the electric drive motors that are the primary technology for EV performance delivery and user experience. Nor is there usually much examination of the engineering and technical details, the workings of the software for managing the motors and batteries, the thermal management hardware for the batteries, or the electrical and data architecture that combine to determine how well things work, or how well an EV exploits its potential.

Is this just because the many content providers bottle-fed on the traditional ICE engineering and marketing mindsets would have to go back to school to grasp these new technical perspectives from non-mechanical disciplines? Or does this fast-moving technical market/discourse call for a new set of skills/narrative points that haven’t yet emerged or matured? Or are EVs (for the consumer market, at least) becoming just government-mandated FMCGs, rather than the traditional owner’s status symbol or the consumer-society family’s pride and joy???

Although the technical details don’t really address either the significance or the potential of EV engineering and technology, there could be EV narratives that revel in all this technical jiggery-pokery and create market differentiation by extolling their capabilities, advantages and potential.

Unglamorous infrastructure

Of course, just about all discussion of EVs is irrelevant if the charging infrastructure cannot keep up. Public charging points unfortunately feature a wide range of different (and often proprietary) plug-in sockets, charging capacities and charging speeds, as well as a baffling array of providers, software platforms and payment models. In many countries, the design and layout of urban spaces, the housing mass and available parking (think: anyone who has to park on the street) result in huge gaps in practical charging availability – unless our pavements are to become a carpet of chaotically snaking charging cables!

There is many a tale of woe about the realities of electric charging at the nitty-gritty end of transport realities, and success for the market as a whole will depend a lot on greater interoperability and shared standards, many more chargers, much greater reliability and a reliable contactless access/purchasing experience, as highlighted by companies like InstaVolt in the UK. Humble charging points are much more mundane than the shiny, sharp-accelerating EVs that motoring journalists review and pontificate about, but the success of innovation in the wheeled bits of the EV ecosystem will depend heavily on corresponding follow-up in the seriously unglamorous stationary bits.

One positive corner of such an umbilical cord narrative perhaps lies in vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technologies – explained here – that are still in their infancy. A project with V2G school buses began in New York way back in 2018, involving partners Lion, V2G technology company Nuvve, White Plains School District and (!) the British multinational public transport company National Express. Such vehicle-battery-grid business models and operating scenarios shift the EV discourse far beyond any actual vehicle, any specific manufacturing or propulsion technology or any particular design configuration. Interesting but too marginal?

Second force

Tesla had a major PR win and was able to score major first-mover advantages in the global EV market, but credible next-generation alternatives now seem to be coming around the corner. The new kid on the block can quickly seem more exciting, although the bar for commercial success and survival has now become painfully high.

It’s also difficult to ignore moves towards other zero-carbon alternatives to ICEs and EVs, particularly for the huge fleets of commercial vehicles that have to work/earn revenue all day, every day. A current leader among these is hydrogen. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) running on hydrogen are unfortunately renowned for consistently having been “only ten years away” for several decades, whereas hydrogen-fuelled ICE engines are now in production and undergoing testing by major companies like JCB Power SystemsFEV, DAF and Cummins – mainly for trucking, construction, agriculture and similar heavy-duty, long-hours commercial uses.

A November 2020 Wall Street Journal article listed no fewer than 11 EV startups set to chase after Tesla. Few of these erstwhile challengers will be able to emulate the Tesla juggernaut, or scale up, gain a market foothold and survive in the merciless commercial world. But if the narrative becomes more subtle and the terms of discourse become more rigorous …

Forget the hardware

There is widespread – well, omnipresent – manufacturer awareness about the need to design for the zero-emission powertrains that are currently the only viable way forward – whatever those powertrains and energy sources may turn out to be. But the car/EV is no longer king – just one component in a bigger picture, and one item on larger agendas. This is especially true in commercial environments where “wheels on the road” are often only a small part of the overall capabilities required, the cost equations to be dealt with and the narrative mindset that drives the whole shebang. Early-generation EVs shot the whole market segment in the foot by inadvertently making “range anxiety” a primary narrative for the general public as well as the media community, whereas Tesla has (fairly) quietly eradicated the entire charging nightmare discussion with its own Supercharger network and its complete integration with the Tesla software package. Tesla has turned a perceived problem into a (fairly) smooth, hassle-free user experience, while the mainstream narrative is still obsessing about “range anxiety” and charging availability.

It’s too easy to wallow in EV discussions based on vague aspirations, fluffy statements and technical ignorance. It would probably help the EV case and help build a business model with a reasonable likelihood of survival if the focus were on down-to-earth usefulness in practical user scenarios, whether consumer or commercial.

For example, a company like Janus Electric in Australia seems to do a great job of promoting specific, user-centric aspects of the EV transition by focusing hard on the nitty-gritty economics of real-world commercial operations, and making the core (commercial) EV narrative one of simple common sense and business optimisation.

In a somewhat similar though less hardware-agnostic vein, Volta Trucks bills its Truck as a Service (TaaS) concept as an end-to-end solution that simplifies, accelerates and de-risks commercial fleet electrification. Yes, Volta is trying to promote sales of its own commercial EVs, but the specific hardware is not an end in itself. Any particular current-or-future truck configuration is only a component in a large system and in a bigger-perspective business model.

The real point of commercial EV concepts like Truck as a Service is not that it is an electric truck, but that it is part of a purposeful context, and that the overall business model helps solve an immediate, tangible problem that a lot of people recognise and can identify with – and are willing to pay for a solution to.

Yes, the overall Volta Trucks aim is presented as being to revolutionise the proverbial last-mile logistics by delivering a certain brand of more sustainable electric commercial vehicles, but also that these EVs help keep other road users safe as well as improving modern city-centre environments so they are less unpleasant for everyone. In fact, Volta explicitly puts out its mission shingle as the ambition to make our urban areas safer, healthier and more pleasant for all.

The logical solution to a longer-term-viable EV narrative therefore seems to be to avoid wedding any particular mobility or transport service to any specific (transient) hardware platform or technology – it’s the “what” result that counts more than any specific “how” hardware platform selected to deliver the required service at any particular technology juncture or in any particular geographical/societal location. The EV narrative has to be able to dispel the oceans of accumulated FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that have held back EV implementation and understanding. The EV moniker and any chosen EV narrative supporting it are not an end in themselves, and are (arguably) only really relevant and useful as a temporary, transitory differentiator from the sins of our collective past.

The key to success will lie in the degree and direction of the business model/”bigger picture” rethink, rather than any specific hardware configuration, battery technology, vehicle body design or marketing message. The narrative will have to move on from traditional sunk-cost value and product-centric perceptions to wider-perspective cost/functionality/responsibility narratives about the experience and service thus provided. It ain’t easy, but shouldn’t we soon be arriving at a new level of post-hype maturity about what we want to do, and why?