I drove a Tesla Roadster this weekend.

Envy: when you can't have one, pissing people off is the next best thing.I’ve rode shotgun in electric vehicles (EVs) before, but this weekend was my first time driving one. Thanks to my good friends at the HBS Energy Symposium, I got the opportunity to take a Tesla Roadster 2.5 for a spin around the Harvard Business School parking lot.

Driving a Tesla is a pretty unique experience in the year 2010. To date, I’d bet that fewer than 10,000 Americans have ever set foot in an EV, much less put the pedal to the metal. The experience reaffirmed and contradicted some of my prior biases around EVs, so I thought I’d share my observations here.

Americans will buy EVs because they like acceleration…not just because they’re green.

Today, the majority of Americans think of EVs as glorified go-carts that only hippies buy because they’re “green.” Putting greenness aside for a moment, the reality is that electric motors exhibit much greater torque at lower speeds than fuel-powered motors. When the majority of Americans have the opportunity to test drive a Nissan Leaf or a Chevy Volt over the coming year, they’ll experience neck-breaking acceleration first-hand; and it will completely shatter their preconceptions about EVs. (If you don’t believe me, check out this review of the Leaf.)

The same upper-middle class professional who would have purchased a BMW is now going to look at the Leaf and the Volt — not because they’re green, but because they’re  performance vehicles.

The silence is eerie.

You turn the ignition. Nothing.*

You look for the gear shift. There is none, so you press “D” for drive. Nothing again.

You accelerate. Nothing yet again.

The juxtaposition of the power of an EV with its lack of any audible evidence of that power is spooky to someone who is used to hearing his car get louder when it works hard. (If you’re curious, I drive a Subaru Legacy and love it.) It takes some getting used to.

* Actually, the car does make a satisfying beep when you turn it on.

People look at you funny when you drive an EV.

Let’s forget for a second that I’m driving a $109,000 sports car in a parking lot full of students. Of course, people are looking at me because it’s a hot car.

But, they’re also looking at me because they don’t hear anything either. People do a double take, and they can’t figure out why. It’s because, when you look at the Roadster, you expect it to sound like a Porsche. Our visual and aural anticipations are inextricably linked for these types of first impressions.

EV makers need to work harder to keep my eye on the fuel gauge.

It took me a good 30 seconds to find the state of charge meter for the Roadster, and when I did I wasn’t sure I really understood it. I wondered if I would forget to charge my EV, simply because the “fuel gauge” isn’t in the right place. Even if it was, I actually don’t look at my fuel guage every time I get in my car. I just don’t think about fuel until I’m almost out of it.

How can EV makers use industrial design and clever human machine interfaces to produce cars that remind us to charge frequently? Maybe when you turn the ignition, you hear: “Good afternoon. Your battery is at 60%. You have more than enough to get home.” I’m open to suggestions…

Summary thoughts

It will be fascinating to watch the change in American expectations around EVs as we stop reading about them in newspapers and start test driving them ourselves. Sure, they’re not for everyone; but my bet is that a sizable number of Americans will fall in love with the EV. And, a lot of them will be surprised.

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1 Response to I drove a Tesla Roadster this weekend.

  1. Peter says:

    The day they add a feature that makes them sound like Steve’s Mustang in Bullit is the day I finally buy an electric car.

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