Going Electric: Unlocking Adoption of Battery Electric Vehicles

Lextant hosted a panel discussion on this topic on January 19, 2021.   This is an adaption of that conversation moderated by Mark Palmer, Lextant’s Chief Operating Officer and featuring:

  • Freddie Holmes, Special Correspondent, Automotive World
  • Kristin Kolodge, Executive Director of Human Machine Interface and Driver Interaction, J.D. Power
  • McKay Featherstone, VP of Product Development and Engineering, Airstream
  • Chris Rockwell, Founder & CEO, Lextant

You can watch or listen to the panel discussion in its entirety here.

Mark Palmer:  I’d like to welcome everyone to today’s panel discussion.  We’ll be talking about unlocking the adoption of battery electric vehicles and explore the experience barriers and opportunities impacting consumer adoption of EVs and the design implications for future development and innovation.  To get us started, we’ll have each of our panelists share his or her perspectives on the current state of the battery electric market.  We’ll start with Freddie.

Freddie Holmes, Automotive World:   Thanks, Mark.  One of the questions we’re asking today is about the barriers to adoption of BEVs.  And, I think while there are still some technical challenges at play here, there are also consumer misconceptions about these vehicles that need to be addressed.  Some of these are that EVs are slow, boring and inconvenient to use.  While this may have been the case with earlier models, but is certainly not the case anymore – take GM’s CES presentation for example – we’re seeing more innovative models being introduced with better range, better performance and faster charging times.

Another key part of the conversation is infrastructure which generally relates to public charging points.  A shift that is important here is home charging.  Being able to have home charging is a really core part of EV ownership.  Put it this way, if you could fill up with gas at home today, you would.  You can in essence do that with an EV and it would cost you a lot less at the end of the month.  However, we can’t ignore that the majority of consumers don’t yet see the BEV as a viable alternative to the familiarity of gas engines.

Lastly, there’s a clear gap that needs to be closed between what consumers want and what they can afford to buy – and the bottom line is that EVs need to become more affordable to the average buyer.  What can we do to solve for price?  We can make smaller, cheaper batteries but that reduces range and automatically loses potential buyers.  So the industry in the collective sense really has a challenge on its hands.  This goes beyond the automaker to the entire supply chain encompassing tier ones, charging developers and energy companies as well.

Kristin Kolodge, J.D. Power:  Hello, everyone.  At J.D. Power, I’m responsible for the voice of the customer respective to the human machine interface and how their interactions with this technology is translating into the next phases of mobility.  Electrification is a big part of our research that we have been studying for decades.  It’s fascinating to see that while we’re seeing huge technological strides being made in range, cost and reliability of EVs, the mindset of the consumer in regards to adoption really hasn’t changed since our first study in 1997.  There’s a real lack of awareness on the consumer’s part about how far the industry has progressed in addressing the barriers of range and charging.

We have multiple different research studies we perform at J.D. Power and I’ll be referencing some of those related to electrification with you here today.  One area we are focused on is how consumer sentiment is changing over time.  Or how is consumer interest in EVs tracking with the with the many new products being introduced to market.  The short answer is that it’s not.  We are seeing very stagnant consumer interest in EVs so the industry still has work to do to change that.

We are also conducting multiple studies focused on EV ownership specifically looking at home charging, public charging, and other elements of EV consideration.  We’re studying the ownership experience to really look at the quality, reliability and other consumer expectations that make EVs unique.

McKay Featherstone, Airstream:  Hi, I’m McKay Featherstone with Airstream.  We’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, and we believe electrification will truly be a transformational technology not just for our trailers but also for the motor home side of our business.  The Airstream experience is different than that of a consumer EV – we’re part transportation product, part mobility solution and part lifestyle – and the one big idea for us is the freedom we can give our customers in the way they want to live and travel.  Electrification has the opportunity to change how they travel and give them even more freedom.  It means you can cut the cord from the campground and go almost anywhere you want to go because you have a battery system on board.

More broadly though, when you think of the US market, we’re watching the electrification to the consumer truck market.  Trucks are the number one selling vehicles and a big reason why is that people want to be able to tow things – like an Airstream trailer.  The challenge for electric trucks is when you tow something heavy behind it, you’re going to reduce rage.  So we’re very focused on how to positively impact that and be part of a solution.  How can our product continue to enable that freedom of mobility and how do we help the consumer understand what the experience will actually be like with towing, with charging – so there’s a big technical component and a strong consumer education component involved.

Chris Rockwell, Lextant:  Over the last 20 years, Lextant has been engaged with understanding consumers and users involved with co-creating and evaluation new mobility solutions, and we’ve found that while there are the technical barriers range, charging and the like that we need to overcome to fuel EV adoption, we have to go beyond those to really understand what people want from the experience on an emotional level.

We’ve seen from our research that there is an experience gap when it comes to EVs and we see a real opportunity for us to better express through design and communication the experience opportunities EVs can provide that aren’t possible with other vehicles.   Ambiguity and unpredictability universally detract from experiences, and in the case of electric vehicles, we’re dealing with a lot of ambiguity.  Consumers don’t understand what the technology affords and there’s uncertainty about what it’s actually like to own and use a vehicle like this.  So we have to help consumers project into the future possibilities for them to have trust and believe in the empowerment and freedom EVs can give them.

From a functionality standpoint, the EV experience has to be feel familiar and accessible to some degree to foster trust, but at the same time look new and transformational.  While this is a challenge, we can co-create the experience with consumers to build those breakthrough vehicles.  It won’t just be that it’s a different type of propulsion system, it will really be the mobility experience that matters.


MP:  As I’ve listened to all of you, it seems that there are two different parts to the adoption challenge – technical and experiential.  Regarding the technical barriers, Kristin, where are you seeing movement in cost, range and charging?

KK: Let me take a step back and qualify that some of these technical barriers are more perceived than actual as consumers are just not to the level of education they need to be to appreciate the advances being made on the electrification front.  To put it in perspective, over two thirds of Americans have never been in an electrified vehicle before and we also see that over one third of Americans say they have no knowledge of battery electric vehicles.

We have to recognize that from a consumer point of view, we haven’t brought them up to the level of understanding of what this new technology really means.  Consumers who haven’t experienced and EV don’t really know what they’re asking for or what’s realistic when it comes to range, time to charge, battery life, etc.  So there are nuances we need to do a better job explaining to set ourselves up for success in converting someone to be a BEV owner.   We need to be as transparent as possible about what the experience is now and how it is going to change over time.

MP:  Freddie, Kristin points out that the American market is still quite behind in its understanding of the EV experience.  From your point of you what can we learn from the European and Scandinavian markets in addressing these technical challenges where you have a higher adoption of EVs?

FH:  I’m not sure that I can give you a definitive answer but I’ll start with agreeing with Kristin on the importance of addressing the nuances when it comes to battery range and charge time.  A lot of the technical issues and challenges relate to the battery itself.

So, I’d like to touch on some of the very basic discussions taking place around battery chemistry as automakers are working hard to find ways to improve this in tandem with the largest battery suppliers around the world.  The incumbent battery technology is lithium ion but work is being done to try and find solid state batteries.  This is pretty much seen as the holy grail as it essentially means the battery is no longer that flammable, can be charge more quickly and will be lighter as well.  The solid state cells in development are enabling charges of 80% in 15 minutes compared to the current average of 50-60% in 15 minutes.  They will also be more durable which is a key consideration looking towards a future used EV market.  Our biggest hurdles appear to be cultural instead of technical at this stage.


MP:  Chris, you spoke earlier of an experience gap.  I imagine there are some elements of car culture – especially for trucks and sports cars – where there is a hard wired attachment to the visceral feelings you get from the cars sounds, the smell of gasoline and the like.  What are your thoughts on this experience challenge?

CR:  The truck segment is the fastest growing in the U.S. auto market as you know and there is a certain affinity for combustion there.  The challenge for EV conversion is to really unpack that emotional connection to the vehicle – what does the vehicle say about me and my personality?  Then how do we communicate through design cues the possibilities of a new type of vehicle.  How do you deliver on freedom?  How do you deliver on ease, comfort, or power in ways you couldn’t deliver before?

That’s where we have real potential to unlock the mass market by creating new vehicle experiences that deliver these emotional outcomes and pull people to EVs rather than a push strategy.  Our research shows that it’s totally possible to connect those desired emotional experiences to the functional benefits you get from electrification – not just the fact that it happens to be a different powertrain but the new added value associated with it.


MP:  McKay, will you pick up on this and talk a little bit more about how Airstream is approaching added value through electrification?

MF:  Chris, I think you’re exactly right with the potential that’s there to connect emotional benefits and outcomes to the functional, tangible benefits.  For Airstream, one of the things I’m really excited about with electrification is the opportunity to relieve one of the big pain points of trailering – backing up into a tight space.  Nobody likes to do that.  Now we have the opportunity to introduce a battery and powertrain into the trailer itself.  We’re already introducing these products in Europe where there just isn’t room for a big truck or SUV at most campgrounds, and we see this becoming widely available here in the U.S. so our owners may never have to back up a trailer again!

This technology is actually opening up potential new segments for us as well.  Removing the intimidation of backing up is one benefit being part of that freedom to go where you want to go idea.  Another is removing the need for gas-powered generators that can be noisy and smelly.

We are really talking to our consumers to understand how we can leverage electrification to uncover and design more and more ways to differentiate and create even better experiences that will make even more desirable products.

KK:  That’s a really interesting point, McKay.  The idea that we can create new experiences that might only be achievable through electrification.  Then helping consumers connect those dots and celebrate the potential.

CR:  To add to what you’re both saying, all of a sudden vehicles can be reconfigured in new ways using space more efficiently and differently.  The idea that EVs can provide experiences you can’t get in other kinds of vehicles today will get the more rapid adoption we’re all looking for.

MF:  That’s one of the most exciting things for us – especially on the motor home side of the business – fundamentally changing how we design the layout.  The new skateboard-type platform is giving our designers a foundation with a lot of freedom to build whatever they want on top of it.  To create new layouts and experiences we could never touch with a traditional platform.


MP:  And, to an earlier point, we can find ways for people to bond with these vehicles especially if we communicate their new capabilities through design.

MF:  Yes, Kristin made a great point about consumers not having the knowledge or understanding they need yet.  I think Porsche, Tesla and Hummer are all great cases of vehicle design giving a clear sense of what they are all about.  I’m also really enjoying seeing the new Cadillac line from GM and that luxury experience.  I think they are using design to help people understand the possibilities or to at least get excited about what the possibilities can be.


MP:  So you’re all seeing great possibility about the experiences electric vehicles will be able to create that combustions engines can’t provide but these do come with a price tag.  How do you all see performance and affordability starting to come together?

FH:  We are definitely moving to that point.  You mentioned benefits with costs, but there are also benefits that are coming for free.  Automakers are coming up with apps that tether to your car to give you key information like state of charge in real time.

There is also vehicle to grid technology being discussed with the opportunity to use your vehicle as a storage system.  The idea being that you use solar power to charger your car, take your car out and back, and then use that energy to feedback into your home.

We’re also seeing some manufacturers  offering as many as 30,000 free electric miles which is a pretty strong incentive, especially if you don’t have the ability to charge your vehicle at home.


MP:  Freddie, that raises a question about the success of EVs in Europe, what have the impact of incentives and government policies been?

FH:  They have certainly played a role in making it easier for automakers to get cars off the lot and reclaim some of the investments they’ve made in this new technology.  And, then, of course these are powerful carrots for the consumer.  Kristin, you may be well positioned to comment about North America.

KK:  One of the things we’ve seen consistently in our research is that incentives play a major factor in consideration for electric vehicles for consumers who have never owned an EV but also for consumers that have a battery electric vehicle today.  Tying incentives to experiencing an EV is critical to consideration and purchase.

What we are seeing is that for those that actually have owned an electric vehicle, their loyalty to that type of powertrain fit configuration is huge and for the most part never going back to an internal combustion engine.  And, this holds true at a variety of different satisfaction levels.

So the more we can get people to consider these vehicles and have an experience that leads to purchase, then we’re going to really see the trajectory of adoption accelerate and grow.

CR:  Kristin, do you think the data point around people who buy electric vehicles never going back  is highly correlated with either a brand affinity or to being an early adopter by nature?

KK:  What we’re seeing is that it’s not staying with a specific brand itself but a staying with that powertrain type itself where the loyalty is lying.  We appear to be transitioning from the early adopter type of consumer to a more mass market consumer with mass market expectations for quality and reliability.

CR:  Thanks again to all of you for sharing your view points on this important topic today.  I think we’ve all agreed that the success of EVs will really be tied to creating experiences that pull consumers to them in addition to incentives that help push consideration.  It’s really encouraging to see the sheer amount of investment going into the entire supply chain and to see the OEMs launching a wide range of EVS models and price points.   Signs that we are definitely at an inflection point and if we deliver on the experience at these first moments of truth we can see that final swing in market adoption.

You can watch or listen to the panel discussion in its entirety here.


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