Volvo's plan to kill gas engines tops off EV's big makeover

Volvo's plan to kill gas engines tops off EV's big makeover

Volvo electric vehicles
ShutterstockVytautas Kielaitis

For years, many in the auto industry dismissed electric vehicles, safe in the knowledge that fears over a lack of charging points, inadequate range, high price tags and the prospect of spending hours tethered to electric cables would put off the vast majority of drivers.

The truth is they were right, in part.

There's a reason why electric car sales are only now starting to take off a full decade after the first electric models emerged. It has taken years of prolonged public and private investment in new charging infrastructure, as well as falling battery costs, range improvements and the advent of fast-charging, to drive the current wave of sales.

Perhaps more important, many believed electric cars simply didn't have the emotional punch offered by a roaring Aston Martin rounding a corner, or a purring Jaguar pulling away at the lights. The marketeers and the strategists feared that EVs inherently would struggle to create the consumer buzz necessary to drive anything beyond niche demand.

There's a reason why certain brands are still some of the most desirable brands on the market, despite some guzzling fuel like no tomorrow and being well out of the price range of any ordinary punter. Because as much as buying a car is a decision of practical necessity — choosing a ride big enough for the kids' sports uniforms while ensuring the car is at least semi-parkable — when it really comes down to it, it's still an emotional decision.

Automakers, dealers and salesmen know the way to a customer's wallet is via his heart (and it is usually a him), which is why almost every car ad features throbbing music, sweeping vistas and a good-looking motorist expertly handling the curves of a deserted mountain road. They are selling you a dream, not the harassed reality of the school run.

And few seriously thought electric cars would be able to compete with the — let's face it — masculine dream of freedom and power offered by major automakers. Those first modern electric cars, the tiny neighborhood electric buggies you couldn't take on a freeway; the low-range, high-price hatchbacks? They may have had neighbors peeking over the fence, but perhaps more with curiosity than envy.

Then along came Tesla, with its young, confident and straight-talking founder Elon Musk at its helm and high-end cars that gleamed like sports cars on California streets. Suddenly, the electric vehicle became imbued with a glimmer of desirability. Not as something that would save the environment, or cut the weekly gas bill, but as something that was cool.

Suddenly, there was a car that made buying an EV not look like a battle between desire and conscience. Of course, this tipping point was aided by other models such as the Toyota Prius and the Nissan Leaf, both demonstrating electric technology could be used in everyday life.

High-profile events such as Formula E and its mission to bring the glitz of car racing back to city centers also played a part. But Tesla was central in creating the buzz around EVs that has led to the entire automotive industry waking up to the disruption that is about to occur.

Last week, we got perhaps the biggest sign yet of how the "Tesla effect" is shifting the market, as Volvo became the first traditional automaker to announce plans to abandon the traditional combustion engine from 2019 and switch to electric alternatives. Admittedly, the new fleet will include "mild hybrids" that still burn petrol or diesel, but the engines will be much smaller and the transition towards pure zero emission vehicles is obvious.

As Volvo's chief executive, Håkan Samuelsson, observed, "This announcement marks the end of the solely combustion engine-powered car."

There's a number of reasons why Volvo made its move today, rather than last year or next. The aforementioned improvements in charging infrastructure, falling costs, instability in the oil price, growing public pressure on air quality and increased concern about carbon emissions all will have played a part.

But all the EV's practical challenges, while less pronounced than they once were, are far from solved. The charging infrastructure, for one, is still nowhere close to where it needs to be in many developed markets around the world. Fully electric vehicles still remain comparatively expensive compared to combustion rivals. Most charging cycles still take quite a long time.

So the answer to the question "why now" is, instead, that the market is ready. This happened quicker than Volvo expected, but consumers actively demand electric options, it said. "These coming electric cars are seen as very attractive cars and we have to listen to our customers," Samuelsson said in a press conference. The customer is always right, as the adage goes.

By jumping into the market feet first, Volvo has offered the clearest vote of confidence yet that electric vehicles are becoming the go-to choice for modern consumers. They have shed their image as a niche alternative, and gained the gut-punch appeal needed for them to take over the mainstream market. Now this has happened, expect other carmakers to follow Volvo's lead as the market winds blow ever stronger in electric's favor.

Tesla unlocked the latent consumer demand for the kind of electric vehicle people want to drive. Now the race is on for other carmakers to start producing them.

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