Putting The Muscle Into Electric Cars

A distant century ago during the beginning of the 20th century, early electric cars were marketed at women. Gasoline-powered cars were started with a difficult hand crank, a task thought of as unfeminine. Electric cars, by contrast, were much more lady like, or so the thinking went. In fact, ads for gas-powered cars in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal tried touting values normally attributed to EVs of the day—quiet, smooth running, comfortable. One ad from 1911 promised: “A girl of ten can crank it … Any woman can entirely care for it.”

Some of that automotive gender bias continues today. Witness, for example, Electric Cars are for Girls. The site was founded by a mother who took to heart the fossil fuel legacy she was leaving to her son and decided that mothers had a strong motivation to embrace EVs. But what about the guys?

To stereotype just a wee tad, some EVs of recent years have felt a bit, well, less than manly. We’re thinking of overly futuristic designs and colors such as the Nissan LEAF’s electric blue (that said, we’re still fans and one of our colleagues here at RMI loves her LEAF). This departure from automotive norms was deliberate. Manufacturers at first tried to differentiate their EVs from other cars on the road with futuristic designs and bold colors, but those designs age quickly. There’s a reason a Porsche 911 still has the basic shape and look of its earlier predecessors. Ditto for the Volkswagen Beetle, which—despite updates over the years—still looks fundamentally like a Beetle.

2014 Cadillac ELR at 2013 Detroit Auto Show (image copyright EarthTechling)

2014 Cadillac ELR at 2013 Detroit Auto Show (image copyright EarthTechling)

Many more recent EVs look like much closer kin—at least in body styling—to their gas-powered counterparts. The 2014 Cadillac ELR, unveiled at 2013 Detroit auto show and based on the Chevy Volt, is a good example. Its sharp design won’t age faster than we will; it could still look current and modern years from now, with styling and finishes that appeal to mainstream car enthusiasts. But for some fellas, there’s still a stigma of EVs as “not a guy thing.”

Rocky Mountain Institute’s art director, Romy Purshouse, is the very happy owner of a Chevy Volt, her version of which has a “fashionable” white dashboard. But it took some convincing on her part to sell the idea of the Volt to her husband, Charles. “The car felt too feminine at first to him,” Romy explains. Now he loves it. Charles has come around to the idea of the EV as manly, but in a new way. “They’re geeky,” he says. “They’re ‘new’ manly.”

Today’s EVs appeal to guys much the same way an iPhone, laptop computer, flat-screen TV, or other piece of modern-day, high-tech gadgetry appeals. Indeed, Charles loves the tech side of the Volt, such as starting the car with his smart phone. In other words, today’s EVs are manly in a very different way than the muscle cars and hot rods of yore. Or are they?

For one thing, the high tech side of EVs need not appeal to the geeks among us alone. Traditional “macho” car guys can appreciate them, too. Consider the 2001 movie The Fast & The Furious. Amidst the illegal street racing among rival crews, you see tough guys hooking their cars up to engine management software on laptop computers. EVs take that enthusiasm, and swap out the internal combustion engine for an electric powertrain.

Sure, you lose the rumbling engines and loud tailpipes (not that anyone’s missing the cost of gasoline or the emissions), but you retain just as much performance. EVs may not have the same bark, but they can pack just as much—or more—bite.

If your definition of a masculine car is a tough car, then by that measure, SRI’s EV1 electric off-road racer delivers. It’s designed for full-on, off-road Baja racing, capable of hitting 100 mph … in the dirt. It has swappable rechargeable batteries but also hauls over gnarly terrain, trading in the roar of a gasoline engine for the sound of rocks rattling against the car’s underbelly. You get a similar sensation from watching the natural sound videos of Zero Motorcycles’ 2013 lineup of all-electric rides.

And of course there’s Tesla’s Model S, a production sedan that also boasts some pretty badass performance. Here it iscranking on a dyno, doing burnouts in the parking lot at Road & Track, and smoking the competition in quarter-mile, 0–100-mph drag races against a Chevy Volt (no competition), BMW M5 (impressive), and Dodge Viper (holy crap).

We’re not trying to be chauvinistic. Please let the record show: much of what’s appealing to guys about EVs is also appealing to women, sometimes even more so. It might not surprise you that women appreciate safety in a car. But according to Good Housekeeping and J.D. Power and Associates’ “What Women Want” Automotive Satisfaction Survey, nearly 93 percent of women also value performance (compared to 92% of men), significantly more women than men care about how their car impacts the environment (EVs for the win!), and 59–80 percent of car-buying decisions made or influenced by women.

Yet even as EVs appeal to feminine sensibilities, they can likewise appeal to the testosterone-fueled, tech-savvy masculine side of some of us (men and women). In fact, according to the California Plug-in Electric Vehicle Survey, some 71 percent of primary EV drivers are male. So perhaps Romy’s husband Charles was more right than we thought. Maybe EVs are the ‘new’ manly. Plus, if you believe acommercial for the all-electric Fiat 500, EVs can be sexy.

And of course, there’s no reason why women and so-called masculine aspects of EVs can’t come together. Witness Beccy Gordon’s Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 2012 in a stock Mitsubishi EV. (For more EV action from Pikes Peak, also don’t miss “Monster” Tajima’s decidedly non-stock but totally hard-core ascent of Pikes in his tricked-out, high-performance EV.)

For the dudes out there who think a rumbling engine and exhaust fumes are the only way to roll, ask yourself this: what if you could boast muscle car performance, but your only emissions came from the smoking rubber of your tires? That day is here, my friends.

rockymountain-instituteEditor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Rocky Mountain Institute. Author credit goes to Martin Walaszek and Peter Bronski.

Rocky Mountain Institute is an independent, entrepreneurial, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) think-and-do tank. Co-founded in 1982 by Amory Lovins, who remains an active thought leader as Chairman and Chief Scientist, the Colorado-based organization now has approximately 75 full-time staff, an annual budget of nearly $12 million, and a global reputation. RMI excels in radical resource efficiency, especially via integrative design. We drive progress chiefly by transforming design, identifying and busting barriers, and spreading innovation.