Don't Expect Electric Cars to Disrupt Auto Industry

Don't Expect Electric Cars to Disrupt Auto IndustryDisruptive innovations often combine a changes on several dimensions: product, consumer experience, market segment, business model. The emblematic example remains the iPod, which would not have met its phenomenal success if it had not been associated with the business model change that iTunes brought to the music distribution industry. Like-for-like substitution of the old product by the new product, everything else being equal, is rarely a recipe for breakthrough innovation.

Take the electric car. The current focus of the auto industry is to increase battery autonomy and drastically reduce recharging time in order to mimic the experience that the motorist currently gets when driving long distances refuelling along the way in a few minutes. This is almost certainly a lost cause!

The cost/performance benefits of the combustion engine and associated equipment and infrastructure are such that it is unlikely they will be beaten any time soon by an alternative technology in a head-on confrontation.

Now, imagine combining the current state of the art in electric car technology with a different business model and consumer experience.

For short distances (under 160km/day or 100miles/day), which represent the vast majority of car usage, the current level of performance of the electric engine is already technically sufficient. Combining it with a rental scheme model such as the Autolib scheme or even an individual monthly rental scheme could create a breakthrough in the rate of adoption of the new technology. It is likely that we will see a lot of such schemes coming from traditional auto manufacturers as they launch their range of electric vehicles in the coming months and years.

For long distances, what if the existing high speed railway network could be harnessed to create a multi-modal transport experience for individuals on a routine basis? You would drive your electric car on a short distance from your home to a nearby train terminal, where you would board both car and passengers on a high speed train that would take you in a faster, safer and more relaxing way to a terminal close to your destination while recharging your car for the last leg of the journey to your destination point.

Is it thinkable? Well, multi-modal transport already exists for commercial goods transport: a truck takes a container from the plant to the nearby train station, a train takes the container on a long distance, another truck picks it up from the arrival train station and takes it to its final delivery point nearby. The Channel Tunnel between France and the UK is another example of a multi-modal operation both for trucks and passenger cars (see picture). Another such tunnel is currently being built under the Swiss Alps. And obviously, the business of car ferries has been in existence for a number of decades…

So, what needs to happen? Here is a short list to get started. Please use the comment box to brainstorm other ideas!

  • Adapt existing high-speed train carriages to take small electric vehicles on board. Develop electric vehicles with the adequate width to fit in those carriages (which probably means getting rid of ‘Chelsea tractors’).
  • Pick the longest/busiest route in a given country and build a small boarding terminal for cars at each end.
  • Turn cars into an entertainment centres with rotating seats to face each other for a chat, a family game, a lunch; develop a car-cinema option on the windscreen.
  • Get rid of the macho communication about driving our car like James Bond or race pilots (and for those who really miss it too badly, we can create a video game that can be played at the wheel while the car is on board the train!)

Please use the comment box to brainstorm other ideas and add to the list!

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Yann Cramer is an innovation learner, practitioner, sharer, teacher. He’s lived in France, Belgium and the UK, he’s travelled six continents to create development opportunities with customers or suppliers, and run workshops on R&D and Marketing. He writes on and on twitter @innovToday.

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  1. Angela Martin on January 18, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    I’m all for change and different ideas and methods, with constantly evolving technology it’s good to throw out new thoughts on what could potentially be a future…… afterall someone somewhere said ‘how about a car running just on electric?’
    We can even alter the way we think and feel to a certain degree, results of Myers Briggs test from 1yr ago have shown me that about myself.
    But…… ‘Get rid of the macho communication about driving our car like James Bond or race pilots’…???
    Good luck with that…. I think it might be easier to save up for a Tesla than change that part of my personality!…. suspect a large chunk of the population might struggle with that too

  2. rodrigues02 on November 25, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Agree. And also take in consideration the long overnight routes where you could have a nice family dinner and sleep; and by the next morning you could be in your destination city or vacation place together with your small city car. There is a running service like this from Washington DC to Orlando in the US (check this link).

  3. Jay on May 18, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    What about used cars that will be converted to plug-in hybrid vehicles? These conversions will be particularly useful for recently purchased SUVs, trucks, and other low efficiency vehicles, putting what was once a gas guzzler to a vehicle in the range of a compact car, in terms of fuel efficiency.

    So the only people who hate SUVs will be people who just hate big things, not people who actually care about the environment. =)

    The question is, will these conversion centers be supported by auto manufacturers or remain on the sideline as small, independent, centers? And how expensive will conversions be? The cost can be viewed as the cost of the battery, the electric motor, the wiring and circuitry, and the labor.

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