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Standard, Showy or Fit: What do Consumers Want from an EV?

According to The New York Times, the electric cars on display in Detroit are adopting one of two overriding design philosophies: make it exciting, or make it familiar.

The article posits that certain analysts foresee a time when car buyers will pick from similar-looking cars that offer various types of electric, hybrid and conventional powertrains—much as shoppers now choose among 4-, 6- or 8-cylinder engines.

In contrast, other automakers are taking the approach to make EVs look altogether different, offering drivers a way to publicly display their commitment to the environment or to their tech-savvy persona.

Take the auto show’s photo tour, and you’ll see what they mean. Volkswagen has taken the “familiar” route with its new electric Jetta—while the Nissan e-NV200 Concept boasts an all-electric drivetrain, but a far from familiar look.

What About Making it Light?

What is largely missing is what RMI suggests should be the most important design philosophy: making cars light.

Tackling vehicle fitness—cutting out weight, aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance—offers an enormous opportunity to not just boost fuel economy, but move our transportation system off oil altogether.

As outlined in Rocky Mountain Institute’s Reinventing Fire, the U.S. transportation sector can be oil-free by 2050 by improving the way our vehicles are designed, powered and used. The first step: make our vehicles lighter and fitter.

While many vehicles at the Detroit show are lighter than previous similar models, such as the Cadillac ATS or the Toyota Prius C, the weight reductions are largely incremental, accomplished by making the vehicle smaller and using lightweight aluminum, rather than revolutionary carbon fiber.

“There is only so much lightweighting we can achieve with conventional materials,” said Greg Rucks, a consultant with RMI. “Instead of wringing the last bit of innovation left in current designs, the same amount of innovation and design effort could be more productively applied toward revolutionary autos that far exceed 100 mpg equivalent with better safety and performance. Automakers who recognize this early will be in the best position to capture market share.”

BMW’s all-electric i3 concept car—the “megacity vehicle” is one example of what could be a market disrupter. With a mostly carbon fiber body, the i3’s lightness allows it to travel much longer distances on a single battery charge while providing superior safety (carbon fiber can absorb up to six times more crash energy than aluminum).

According to BMW, the i3 Concept reveals “the car’s qualities the first time you set eyes on it,” indicating that the automaker believes early adopters want to stand out and get noticed for being ahead of the curve.

I’m not going to lie—if I saw this pull up in the next parking space, I don’t doubt that I would shamelessly strike up a conversation with the owner. And, I have definitely been caught admiring a driver of a Nissan Leaf (just stopping short of giving them a hug like the polar bear in Nissan’s commercial).

What do you think? Are consumers more likely to flock to EVs that are more familiar? Or will early adopters be more impressed by models that are clearly leading-edge?