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How are cars going to differentiate themselves when performance is a commodity?

Cars seem to be simultaneously getting more exciting and more boring at the same time. Fifteen years ago, performance was the thing that set high-end cars apart from the rest. Sure, it’s important not to understate things like design and comfort, but ultimately, high-end cars were different because of their performance. But these days, you can get behind the wheel and hit the accelerator on a sub-$40,000 EV, and get to 60 seconds in only a little more than three seconds. That’s a level of power that only the most expensive cars of 15 years ago could approach.

Now, to be clear, driving dynamics are about a lot more than 0-to-60 times, and even I can easily fall into the trap of boiling performance down to that one number. To be fair, a point could be made that it’s an easy metric for most car buyers to understand, and that the nuances of steering dynamics and the feel of a car are largely indiscernible to most people. But the fact remains that the feel of the brakes and suspension, as well as the tuning of the engine or motors, all impact how a car is going to react when you get behind the wheel.

All that said, raw performance is becoming a commodity thanks to the rise of electric cars. So what now? When “performance” is easy to come by, how should cars differentiate themselves? Will the cars of the future still have a personality?

Competition at its finest

I actually think this discussion really boils down to good old-fashioned capitalism. When performance is easy to come by, car manufacturers have to compete in other ways – and that has started leading to some pretty interesting decisions.

One way that car manufacturers can compete, of course, is in design. I’m not sure a car that looks like the Hyundai Ioniq 5 or the Kia EV6 would ever exist in a world without electrification. These are some of the coolest-looking EVs out there, and they come at a low price. More expensive cars look great too – like the Rivian R1S, with its now-famous oval headlights.

Ioniq 5 N rear

“As you’ve seen with new EV models, they have the brand swagger in their look and feel – Cadillac Lyric, Ford Mach-E, Jeep, Rivian,” said Alyssa Altman, auto industry lead for Publicis Sapient, a consultancy firm that works with the likes of General Motors, Toyota, and more.

Another area that car makers could finally start competing in is software. I get it – this isn’t a topic that’s likely to win over car lovers like it might tech lovers. But software is still integral to the experience of driving a modern car, and it’s an area in which every single legacy carmaker still utterly fails. The likes of Tesla and Rivian are leading the way in consumer-facing car software, and even their software is really only fine in a world where most are spoiled with the software they use on their phones.

“Most importantly, as software-defined vehicles, customers can upgrade the experience over time with new capabilities and services,” said Altman.

What really matters

Design and software experience are important enough, but the best way for carmakers to compete is in areas like range and charging – areas that radically impact the experience of driving an electric vehicle. So far, carmakers aren’t really competing on this front all that much. Most consumer EVs offer a base model in the 250-mile range, with an option for a larger battery that delivers up to 330 miles or so. Charging speed varies quite a bit, with some able to get to 80% in under 20 minutes and others taking up to 40 minutes or more.

Ford EVs at a Tesla Supercharger station.

Again, these kinds of metrics aren’t likely to win over so-called car-loves, and they certainly don’t argue against the idea that electric vehicles have less of a “soul.” But they are things that impact actual car buyers much more.

The soullessness of electric cars

Of course, there’s an argument to be made that electric cars don’t and won’t have personality, at least when it comes to the notion of actually driving one. While I’m not fully sure I agree with that, I certainly understand the concept.

A lot is taken out of the way cars feel in the world of electrification. When you push down on the accelerator of an electric car, the motors immediately spin up, sending power to the wheels. On a gas-powered vehicle, the process of sending power to the wheels is a lot more complicated. When you push down on the accelerator in a gas-powered car, you’re controlling the ratio of gasoline and air that is sent into the cylinders, which then compress this combination to create a combustion reaction, thus turning the crankshaft, which is then translated into torque to the wheels. All these steps might create a delay in how you accelerate in the car, but that process of revving the engine and switching gears as you go is easy to romanticize.

Kia EV9 GT-Line Three Quarters
Christian de Looper / Digital Trends

As we move toward electric, all of this is compressed – to the point where most electric cars kind of feel similar, or the same. Not everyone is in favor of that.

“Every car I’ve owned has a personality,” said Gretchen Seidel, an automotive expert with 30 years in the industry. “Currently, it’s The Beast, a Mercedes SL550. Plus, I love the growl of an engine and the smell of gas, oi,l and grease. As someone who lives for the sensation of driving, transitioning to a whir and whine of an EV is emotionally disconnecting. EVs offer incredible benefits as far as efficiency and sustainability, but for me, they lack the visceral experience that defines [internal combustion engine] vehicles.”

Building a new soul

While I get the idea of electric cars being soulless compared to their gas-powered counterparts, EV manufacturers are attempting to recreate the experience of driving an internal combustion engine (ICE) in their EVs.

That has so far started with the sound. Many EV companies have built fake engine noise into their electric cars – noise that’s pumped through the speakers in the car when you hit the accelerator. I personally don’t love this – it usually sounds fake, and I think it removes one of the major benefits of an electric car, which is the quietness.

The front three-quarter view of a 2022 Rivian against a rocky backdrop.

But combined with other tech, it can start to feel more compelling. For example, some car manufacturers are even building fake manual transmissions into their cars, allowing drivers to switch gears as they drive to recreate the feel of gear-switching as it happens. Plenty of bona fide “car people” love this – even if, again, I don’t find it to be all that compelling.

This is one path forward. Manufacturers could recreate how ICE cars sound and feel, and differentiate based on the nuances of that tuning.

I’m not sure that’s the best path forward, but I personally don’t really have an alternative. The facts are simple – as we move toward electrification, the things that many car overs actually love about cars simply won’t exist. The roar of an engine and the smell of gasoline will either be fake, or nonexistent.

For most people, this isn’t much of a loss, especially when it’s replaced with a cleaner car. And, I do think that carmakers will figure it out —  by finding ways to make driving electric cars more fun, and more interesting, while competing in areas like design, range, and software.

Are cars becoming soulless? Maybe, but at the same time, they’re becoming a whole lot better for everyday drivers.

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