What is the best way to create electric cars?

Volvo XC60

Earlier this month, Volvo made news by announcing its plans to have its entire lineup “electrified” by 2019. That means any car you buy from that company will have an electric motor, whether to move the car on its own (which makes it an EV) or to help a combustion engine on the same task (rendering it hybrid). In other words, the latter is now being officially phased out by the Swedish automaker.

What makes that surprising is not so much the decision per se, but the short time in which its execution will be finished. After all, all big manufacturers have been toying with this idea by now, but none has ever been as bold as Volvo is being now. The reasons for such behavior are always related to costs, in some way, because using electric propulsion in massive scale implies making a large investment whose financial return is still not as certain as companies would wish. Nevertheless, there are some ways to deal with that which appear to be easier than others.

Toyota Prius is the most popular vehicle with any type of electric propulsion ever built

In short, electric automobiles exist in two main forms in nowadays: models which were developed exclusively with that purpose and are sold alongside the rest of the lineup, and those which are nothing but versions of the regular ones which happen to feature electric motors. In order to make the following paragraphs easier to understand, the first group is named “special EVs” and the second as “mainstream EVs”.

At first, companies leaned towards mainstream EVs simply for being the most intuitive option. The idea consisted of adapting the electric powertrain to vehicles which they already produced, so everything would’ve been done with relatively low costs. However, while it was, indeed, possible to execute that, the results were useless. The technology available in the 1980s and the 1990s made the systems highly inefficient, so it would be necessary to perform so many changes on the base cars that the aforementioned advantage would be lost. As a result, companies went the other way.

The Elettra was a trim level with electric propulsion which Fiat offered for the Cinquecento supermini in the 1990s

Special EVs are usually developed from a blank sheet. The maker attempts to identify all the particular needs of such cars and strives to devise platform, body and cabin with characteristics that make it as efficient as possible. Of course, this type of venture can be incredibly expensive, but it still attracts many companies because of the long-term benefits it can bring. By the late 1990s, several companies were working on EVs using projects developed exclusively for them. Some of the models which reached the streets at that time are the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius.

Two decades later, it’s time to check this situation once again. Technology has evolved in such a way that EVs became truly competitive in many market categories. Besides making them more efficient from a technical point of view, companies have made them more desirable for customers as a whole — they’re more stylish, reliable and affordable than ever. This is important because EVs are supposed to become a part of people’s lives just like cars of any other type. High efficiency would never attract many customers if it was paired to cramped cabin, unattractive design and/or excessively high prices.

The Honda Insight is one of the first special EVs offered to the public

Over the years, the automotive industry realized that the right way to make EVs successful was to make them as “normal” as possible; to take them closer to what people expect from cars in general. Reduced levels of energy consumption and pollutant emissions are very compelling, of course, but not to the point of superseding everyday characteristics such as practicality and market value. While this change of thoughts was widely accepted in no time, it also presented a plot twist: special EVs might not be the best solution, after all.

To put it in few words, if the intention is to make EVs as similar to combustion cars as possible, why make them different in the first place? Electric systems no longer have efficiency issues big enough to require cars with reduced weight and ultra-aerodynamic design; it had been perfectly possible to use them in everyday models such as sedans and crossovers. Therefore, the tendency is that developing special models to use electric propulsion will simply cease to be necessary. Volvo is proving that because its plan to electrify the entire lineup soon and with high efficiency is being accomplished without a single special EV.

The second generation made the Chevrolet Volt look like a halfway offering between the Cruze’s sedan and hatchback versions

If we dig deeper, producing special EVs is actually inconvenient for the automaker. Take Chevrolet, for example. Most of the differences between the first generations of the hybrid Volt and the conventional Cruze regarded the needs of the respective propulsion systems. Since those have converged over the years, it’s not surprising that the overall concepts of both models have done the same. In nowadays, they could easily be mistaken for one another on the street. From Chevrolet’s point of view, by the time their replacement is due, it’ll be much more interesting to develop the new Cruze with a hybrid version and end the Volt.

For car enthusiasts, it can be sad to see special EVs moving towards that future. After all, they’ve been symbols of the modern automobile for the past twenty years. However, even they need to remember that special EVs were created in the first place merely as tools to facilitate inserting electric cars in the modern market. Their imminent demise means that companies and people have finally begun to rely on this propulsion system to perform their everyday tasks, instead of seeing it as exotic and even utopian.

If electric cars do become as capable and affordable as combustion ones in the near future, one of the biggest reasons will be the trend which Volvo’s latest decision has just helped establish.

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Danillo Almeida

Danillo Almeida

3.3K Followers

Content writer and engineer-to-be who aspires to work in car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.