With a 2,736 km drive behind me, I’ve had my fair share of time to do some thinking, and as any good automotive journalist does, I’ve been thinking about the widespread resistance to adopting electric cars, especially here in America. And I’m here to report that I think I’ve figured out a big reason behind this phenomenon: electric cars are inherently anti-American.
I know that sounds like a shitpost designed to get people fired up, but I want you to hear me out before you jump to the comments to tell me I’m foolish.
Electric cars ask us to change a lot of deeply-held beliefs that we, as Americans, hold, both when it comes to our cars specifically but also when it comes to our lives in general. EVs ask us to be patient. They ask us to be quieter. They ask us to drive shorter distances — and maybe even drive a little slower on the way there. They ask us to buy a car, not so much for ourselves as for the world at large.
That’s not to say that I believe every American is a bumbling, boisterous oaf — but our cars are an extension of ourselves. You can learn a lot about someone based on the cars they drive. We hold deeply ingrained stereotypes about the kind of people who drive certain cars. Think about the fact that there’s a common perception that people who drive lifted trucks are compensating for something, or that they’re a generally uncaring person (something I myself am guilty of). Think about the fact that Brian Griffin driving a Toyota Prius in Family Guy riffs on the stereotype that the only people who drive fuel-efficient, hybrid cars are self-absorbed hippie liberals trying to virtue signal. That’s why minivans are the butt of jokes, the vehicle equivalent of a pair of frumpy mum jeans, or why sports cars like Corvettes have become the vehicle of wealthy Boomers experiencing a midlife crisis, or why I cringe any time I see a BMW in my rearview mirror.
And whether or not those stereotypes are true for every single person who drives those kinds of vehicles, those perceptions influence how we ourselves drive, how we treat other people on the road, or how other people treat us.
Now that I’ve had the opportunity to drive more press cars, I’ve really started to notice this. Behind the wheel of a Dodge Charger Hellcat, I felt invincible, and I kind of wanted to flex on everyone else in their boring ol’ SUVs — but even when I wasn’t speeding around, people still drove around me more aggressively than they do in my daily drivers. Behind the wheel of a grey Hyundai Kona, however, I felt like I was just another drop in the bucket, and no one really went out of their way to cut me off or tailgate me. And I didn’t really want to push the limits in that car. That’s not what the Kona is made for.
I bought my first car, a zippy red Mazda 2, because it was cute and had a little bit of presence but because it could also be fairly nondescript if I wanted it to be. That reflected who I was at the time; I was still painfully shy, with my personality occasionally bubbling over but just as quickly hidden away. Now, with the big blue Suburban, I have a vehicle that reflects my growing self-assurance in who I am, along with the demand for a little bit of respect. My husband, meanwhile, drives a Cadillac ATS because he’s a bitchy old woman trapped in the body of a 29-year-old man.
Part of this comes from the fact that Americans have long defined themselves via the automotive industry. We’ve prided ourselves on power, speed, and mechanical growth, and we’ve done that in all industries. We’re a nation that believes we are the best, and we’re very proud and vocal of that. We developed our nation around the rapid growth of the personal car, and that includes everything from the roads we drive to the foods we eat to the jobs we have. And the personal car has become as important to the definition of our personalities as the clothes we wear or the music we listen to.
Electric vehicles have come in to entirely challenge those notions. Suddenly, we’re being asked to buy a car less because of how perfectly it’s tailored to us but because of how it will benefit the people around us. We’re learning that our battery may not be large or powerful enough to transport us from the out-of-the-way place we chose to live to the city where we work. We’re learning that we can’t just hop out on the big, open American road and go without having to think about where we’ll get our power — and we’ll have to wait to charge up. We won’t be able to rev our engines at stoplights to intimidate the person next to us, or feel our cars in our bones, or do motor repairs at home. EVs will entirely transform the American relationship to the vehicle.
Of course, one company has really changed the scope of the conversation regarding EVs: Tesla. Tesla has done a pretty good job at transforming an EV from the butt of a joke to a desirable status symbol — but the company also comes with its own baggage that has really polarised the Tesla name. Now, you either love Tesla and all the connotations it comes with, or you’re suspicious of what it’s peddling, which doesn’t do much to help the EV cause.
Now, I’m not making this argument to say that we need to reject the concept of electric cars entirely, because I love EVs. I’m saying it because we can use this as a way to reframe our understanding of electric cars and the way we present them to the general public, because I just don’t think appealing to everyone’s larger sense of humanity is going to work in a country conditioned to prioritise the individual. This is an opportunity to reframe the way we present and market EVs to the American public in an effort to encourage a more widespread electric adoption.
There are ways we can capitalise on the unique features of EVs. Why aren’t we marketing the instant torque of an electric motor, which lets you jump away from a stop sign faster than that ICE you’re having a little friendly competition with? Why aren’t we really emphasising the Jeep Wrangler 4xe’s electric capabilities that you can save for the trail, which means you can experience the beauty of America’s natural landscape without disturbing the land around you? Why are we offering tax incentives but not free or discounted at-home charging systems that let you cut out the middleman and save money by charging at home?
There will, of course, still be obstacles. It’s understandable that people would worry about public charger availability, slow charging times, battery efficiency, and model variety — and while these things will evolve with time, that evolution is going to be slow unless we stoke the fires of interest in consumers. There’s no benefit to developing this new type of vehicle unless we know people are going to buy them. And to do that, we need to revolutionise the way we talk about and market EVs.
No more vague press release language about mobility. No more only-urban-drivers-will-want-this. Show Americans how electric vehicles can enhance their current relationship with cars while still providing them with the American exceptionalism we want to see in our vehicles. Show us how an EV will make us a badass, show us how an EV can seamlessly become a part of our life, and make it easier for that to happen. Then we’ll be ready to have the serious electric conversation.