Needed: A Steve Jobs for Electric Cars

By · October 06, 2011

Steve Jobs

The late Steve Jobs in 2007. He looked beyond what people said they wanted to what they needed. (Flicker/Acaben)

The death of Apple’s Steve Jobs made my 17-year-old daughter cry, and I completely understand. She loves her Apple laptop and her iPod Touch, and she has total respect for the guy who insisted that they not only be “insanely great,” but also affordable (or relatively affordable) to her and her friends.

The EV world needs a Steve Jobs, who won’t rest until he’s created a vehicle that can jump-start a mass movement. We need a game changer. On October 4, Deloitte released a rather pessimistic survey, “Unplugged,” that reflected the thoughts of 13,000 consumers in 17 countries. It’s a snapshot in time, but it revealed that people “expect electric vehicles to travel farther, require less charge time and retail for a lower price than automakers are offering.”

They Want the Impossible

Nonetheless, there is a lot of interest in EVs—54 percent of U.S. respondents in the Deloitte survey said they “might be willing to consider” buying or leasing an electric car. But they want more than the industry is currently capable of delivering—range above 300 miles, for example, no price premium and 30-minute recharge times. I agree that consumer expectations are way out of whack—I go into it in my new book High Voltage (published next month by Rodale).

But just because the auto industry can't deliver now doesn't mean it won't tomorrow. Consider the field of online music before Steve Jobs, having just came back to Apple after his years in the wilderness, applied his intellect to building something great. Napster had gone down in flames, and the clueless record companies’ own models for selling files were totally self-serving and unworkable. Songs would play twice and then self-destruct! It was Jobs who came up with the idea of the easy-to-understand 99-cent download, and then brought out what one author called “The Perfect Thing,” the iPod. Bingo, an instant industry worth many billions, the death of CDs, and Americans listening to music in a whole new way. No survey would have predicted it.

Consider the iPhone

Edmunds.com Senior Technology Editor Doug Newcomb carries this thought further. "Before the iPhone came out," he told me, "people were thinking that cell phones were kind of a joke—nobody expected them to work all that well. Then Apple delivered this device that people lusted after, that because of exceptional design and functionality they had to have.”

What Jobs did, Newcomb points out, was not just meet people’s expectations—but exceed them. He wasn’t thinking about what people wanted, but about what they didn’t even know they wanted. Henry Ford famously said that if he hadn't looked around the corner, the result would have been a faster horse instead of a car.

So where’s the Steve Jobs of EVs? I know who you’re thinking of, and I mostly agree. Elon Musk. The Tesla Roadster was an insanely great game changer, and Musk pushed every step of the way to deliver something that the market didn’t even know it wanted—a high-performance zero-emission electric car. No wonder it inspired Bob Lutz at GM to push for the Chevrolet Volt.

Price Matters

The only thing wrong with the Roadster is the $109,000 price of entry. Given the price of high-tech battery packs, it was never going to become a mass-market vehicle. The $57,400 Tesla Model S, recently shown off in Silicon Valley is closer, but if you want the 300-mile 84-kilowatt-hour batteries (and who won’t want range like that?) you’re looking at $80,000.

Tesla plans to build a mass-market EV for everybody, but it’s in line behind the Model X, a crossover SUV on the Model S platform. I don't discount the possibility that Musk will be the guy who ultimately puts the EV in every driveway, but it's also possible he'll sell the company and find other worlds to conquer (he builds rockets, after all).

It won’t be easy to build a market-changing EV, and that’s why no one’s done it yet. Batteries are inherently expensive, and so is building a cutting-edge car from scratch. The Steve Jobs of electrification may be sweating it out in an engineering class right now, or maybe (like Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg), he just dropped out of college because he can’t wait to get to work.

This could be where I deplore the state of science education in America, but instead I’m going to give props to GM and Ford for hiring a lot of young engineers. It was inspiring to learn that General Motors hired no less than 39 of the students competing in the federal EcoCar Challenge. Is one of those kids the next Steve Jobs? From the passion and creativity they exhibited converting their Saturn Vues to EVs, I’d say a definite maybe.

The electric car that changes everything is one that conventional wisdom says can’t be built now. It will have at least 200 miles of range, fast recharge times, and it will cost, at most, $25,000. To succeed, it needs throw-out-the-box design, totally cool functionality and an ultra-usable interface. It’s got to be better than any internal-combustion alternative. I think that car is just around the bend, and somewhere in the world a genius is playing around with a clean sheet of paper.

New to EVs? Start here

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