Driver-Centricity, Engagement, and Pleasure in the EV Transition
I’m in the market for a new car, or maybe not… Regardless, I’ve got a Friday with nothing on the calendar after lunch, my kid’s in school, my wife’s at work and my brother took my dog for the weekend. I’m pre-seed with a new startup in mobility and green tech so I tell myself I’m doing ‘market research’ and book three test drives: three EVs, three massively different approaches. First, I’ll get behind the wheel of a Polestar 2 from Volvo’s electric offshoot. Next, I’ll jump in a Tesla Model Y, then finish it off with the pièce de résistance, a Porsche Taycan, all in enough time to be home for dinner.
What am I hoping to get out of this? It’s hard to say. Nowhere else does a need for pragmatism collide more head-on with one for passion than in that of driving, and as humanity moves towards an inflection point in the ubiquity of the electric vehicle as the de facto future of the driving experience, designers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs effectively have a carte blanche to rewrite just exactly how that manifests. In designing automobiles for the EV transition, new needs and changing social norms have a hand, technological advances create new possibilities, of course climate action is an impetus, but so is what has always been under the hood: envisioning the embodiment of passion through the act of driving.
There is a frantic rush to replace the exhilaration that comes from the roar of an engine with whatever comes next. Regardless of what futurist tech prophecy fills our Twitter feeds, I’m taking a hard stance that ultimately the bets that are made will continue to be called by those behind the wheel staring through the windshield at the road ahead. With screens and haptics, branded sounds, and tech showcases masking themselves as promises of autonomy, there is an exceedingly fine line between amenity and clutter detracting from, and often flat out interfering with, the intangibles born from the pure act of driving. True, driverless autonomy will throw a monkey in the wrench but that reality is years off and the steering wheel is going to be around for at least the foreseeable future. In this future, we — human beings — will remain the drivers, and that truth will define our experience.
Let’s backup. Broadly speaking, the startup I’m launching is focused on improving the efficiency of mobility decisions in primarily urban environments. We’re stealth mode now but launching an app in the near future and I’m excited. Big picture: we’re building a platform with a unique recipe that we hope will get people out of their cars and onto public transit, bikes and scooters when those are the better options and from there, facilitate a sea change of information accessibility in the universe of mobility. If we’re successful, it’s a win for cleaner air, better traffic, better health, improved urban economics and quality of life indices at large. On a microlevel, it will also be a win for the logistics and ease of your commute. Tall order, but we’re up for it. We think we’ve got something special.
To be clear, use of an internal combustion engine (ICE) automobile acts as the benchmark in our algorithm for inefficiency in mobility and, generally speaking, the more a user deviates from ICE use, the more they will be rewarded within the universe of our app. To be even clearer though, on a personal level, I’m not anti-car. I’m the opposite. There’s just a time and a place. Rush hour in downtown Boston: no. Heading up for a weekend in Vermont: Yes. Driving half a mile to the grocery store to grab milk and eggs: no. Carpooling with the competition to a bike race outside the city: yes. As infrastructure, technology, and public perception evolve, so too will the role of the automobile in our lives. Single-mode transportation on an urban level will become as anachronistic as smoking on an airplane. If you disagree and are still on that ride-hail bandwagon, you’re stuck in traffic. Tell the Uber to pull over, hop out and grab a Bird. The wheels are already in motion, so to speak.
Transportation and urban policy are changing. California, for example, is moving away from its infrastructural focus on highways to one on access to transit and micromobility. Battery technology and systems are getting better and prices are getting lower. Vehicle reliability has increased exponentially, as has safety. The climate-conscious left is ballooning into the climate conscious majority. Cities are crowded, streets are clogged, and riding a bike, scooter or skateboard — electric or otherwise — is increasingly mainstream. There’s also no denying that it’s fun. Truly fun. But so are cars and like a lot of us, man, do I love them.
Years ago, I booked a test drive with a Ferrari 612 Scaglietti that I found at a dealership north of Boston. For whatever reason, I was recently obsessed with this fairly unpopular Prancing Horse. The quirkiness and understated elegance — or ugliness, depending on who you ask — of what was this true four-seat grand tourer had me transfixed and I reasoned that the only way to get over it might be to get behind the wheel and show myself that there are in fact more exciting things in this world. I was wrong. When I arrived, they had the car parked at an angle, waiting for me on a trickle charger in front of the dealership. Not a hugely inspiring background check on an unemployed twenty-something with zero realistic intention of making a purchase — or the means for that matter — but that really wasn’t my problem as I saw it at the time.
It was my first time driving a Ferrari and an experience not unlike a first kiss or that first bite of a truly transcendent meal. Yes, I’m serious. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I’m hit with this sensory overload: the smells, the tactility, the view over the hood. I remember it all with photographic clarity today: wrapping my fingers around the leather of the steering wheel, feeling the inconsistencies in stitching, timidly adjusting the mirrors and my seat — experiencing the weight of the car before I had even hit the ignition, which, incidentally in true pre-owned Ferrari fashion, was scuffed, sitting in the dashboard like it was about to fall out; this beautiful imperfection that in any other car would be a point of price negotiation is, with a Ferrari, part and parcel of the worship of the brand. Hitting start on the 6-liter V12 in my hands felt like I was in a rodeo, on a bronc, waiting in the chute for the judge to open the gate. The engine shook laterally and grunted with no input from me. It wanted to move. It wanted to be driven.
I left the lot slowly though, savoring each shift through the gears… my first dance with that famous grated Ferrari shifter. The salesman, Brian slapped me on the thigh and grunted “open her up and see what she can do!” While Brian, the junior salesman stuffed into the backseat, slapped me way too hard on the back of the neck, which segued into a mini shoulder massage meant somehow to goad me on. Despite the provocation, I never did truly “open her up.” Driving a Ferrari around Woburn on a rainy day in November with two guys named Brian, when I should have been at a job interview, is a far cry from Maranello, but that Ferrari magic still put me under a spell. After the requisite pitch by the Brians correlating my masculinity directly with my pending decision to make the purchase, I told them I was “going to think about it” and got the hell out of there.
Fast Forward to 2021. It’s noon and the Polestar guy texts me that he’s outside. I roll downstairs, pop on my mask and find him waiting in front of the house. The car is handsome, no question about it; striking amidst the street parked cars to its front and rear. The build is Volvo-esque but with no Volvo badging, sleek but unexpectedly broad; more than enough muscularity to distinguish itself from the muted Tesla variant that, to me, seems to be the Omicron of the EV immune system, infecting every design decision made these days without regard for brand or style. Inside, I’m seated high with hints of classic boxy Volvo in the structure of the car. The aesthetics though are more refined than my late grandmother’s station wagon, and notably Scandinavian — perhaps a conscious play by the brand’s Chinese ownership. Perhaps not. The palette of the interior is muted with a pop of color found in the yellow belt I buckle into. The materials are plush and the interior impresses me just as much as the exterior. Particularly, the mirrors and headrests, which are masterfully minimal. Mirrors, seats, and climate adjusted with the help of Google Assistant, which lives in an unimposing but appropriately present center console screen, and i’m off.
I’m driving the performance package, hence the bright yellow belts — and yellow Brembo calipers that offer the same pop on the exterior. The performance is there. The suspension is sharp and acceleration is rapid (Polestar lists 0–60 at 4.5 seconds) but with it comes a degree of comfort that I wouldn’t expect. I feel comfortable like I’m in a Volvo, but with a more performance oriented degree of control, elegance, and speed. The tech integration is a strength as well. I don’t feel overpowered by Google’s presence but it’s there when I need it with Assistant, Maps, and PlayStore. Apple’s CarPlay is set to be available in addition in the near future as well.
When I’m back in my driveway, I’m smiling. Polestar has taken the joys of the Volvo brand and translated them into a new EV identity. The car celebrates the act of driving, the novelty and performance of the EV, while integrating tech in a manner that does not clutter nor complicate either of these and rather, heightens them.
A quick lunch and I’m en route to Tesla. I land in the showroom, scribble a few signatures over a kiosk screen with my index finger and the car’s mine for a ride. The hype around Tesla tech is real. It’s an immersive, almost jarring experience for virgins to the brand and truth be told, it took my breath away. The spectacle of the center console interface hits in combination with the quiet of the car. It’s immediately clear that this isn’t a gas car, and not just an EV but a Tesla. I pull out of the garage and into the midafternoon traffic of Copley Square. I’ve got a van in front of me, a sedan in the lane to my left, a coupe to my right, two pedestrians and a cyclist crossing the street ahead. The scene shows up on my screen rendered in white digital massings, like a video game. I’m two minutes into the ride and driving has become something fundamentally different.
The Model Y is eerily silent. I think abetted by a low center of gravity from the weight of the battery, I feel like I’m being pulled along on an assembly line, marveling through the expansive glass roof and windows at the world outside, which, again, the system replicates on the screen for reasons that are increasingly unclear as the spectacle of the whole thing wears off. Real talk: the ride quality is poor. The Model Y’s curb weight is 4500 lbs, which is 500 lbs more than my Discovery Sport, but it feels much heavier. The ride feels tinny and hollow, particularly when I brake. Apart from the dash, which is brilliant, the interior is uninspired and sterile. Not worth a second thought and clearly not the manufacturer’s intended focus.
But all this isn’t what it’s about. The car isn’t about driving or being driven, it’s about the software, the sensors, and the system: the premise of automation and the spectacle of presenting a digital overlay to real world mobility from the perspective of a car promising to be autonomous any day now. Tesla’s $1T+ valuation is in effect that promise — or lie, again depending on who you ask. The experience of the drive is something entirely new: the tech is enveloping but a few minutes after I leave and get back in my own car, my dopamine levels start to come down and I feel unsatisfied, mopey, and depressed. Yes, I’m being dramatic, but driving a Tesla really is like socializing on your iPhone. The intensity of the digital interface takes away from being in the moment and afterwards, I’m left feeling empty, like I was never present. Over the course of an hour, I went from experiencing a novel exhilaration of digital stimulation to a lackluster recollection of a driving experience in which I was never able to truly engage with my drive. There are implications here beyond the experiential that delve into the realm of safety and accountability, but I’m here on a Friday afternoon and my sentiment stops at the fact that I wanted something more from my spin around Copley Square this afternoon, or at least something that doesn’t leave the lasting impression of a bunch of screen time inside a clunky, albeit sleek, box on wheels.
Next stop, last stop: Porsche. Immediately, in the driver’s seat, hands on the wheel, eyes over the hood on what’s ahead of me, I’m taken back to that Scaglietti experience… minus the Brians. I know… I know… It’s a Porsche, not a Ferrari, and someone could write a book on the ontological differences between driving the two brands (if they haven’t already), but my point is that I’m back in a car designed around the experience of engaged driver-centricity and the unique flavor of pleasure that comes with it. There is a beautiful balance to the car that falls between EV ingenuity and classic Porsche. I know immediately that I’m in a Porsche: it’s emotional and visceral with teutonic clinicality. It’s a lot like driving a big powerful Panamera, but it’s much more its own thing, and something really special at that. The tech in the car is dialed, intuitive, and useful, but it’s not the star of the show, rather the supporting cast. I’m sitting in front of three screens spread across the entirety of the dash. It’s striking and futuristic but I’m engaged with the road — the real road, not a digital replication of it.
I don’t even get remotely close to seeing what this car can do. Stuck in late afternoon traffic, I drift between red lights and yield at crosswalks for hordes of BU students. I’m happy though. I know… this is an expensive car — with a price tag about twice as much as the other two I’ve been in today, but this isn’t a Consumer Reports article nor a scientific study, and when you’re just as engaged and invigorated going 15 mph as you are going 90, there’s something happening that goes beyond price and performance that begins to enter the realm of soulfulness, theatricality and emotion. It’s something intangible. If anything, it’s about realness. It’s about what is felt and perhaps more importantly, what is remembered.
At dinner, a beer in hand, a pair of chopsticks in the other, I work through my meal in parallel to my recollection of the afternoon’s drives. All three cars are amazing creations; accomplishments built by huge teams, boatloads of money, bold visions, and big, though calculated, risks. I’m left pondering what it means “to drive” and how that will change in the future; how it already is changing. What’s the point of no return? I think about the advent of the internet and of the ubiquity of the smartphone and what connectivity has given us in information and perceived convenience. These devices, while they have in a very literal sense put the answer to every question in the world in the palms of our hands, have taken away so much experientially in our ability to engage with the universe where these questions came from. We are increasingly bound by our phone’s screen, watching our lives whiz by in an ironic reframing, paralyzed to respond with much more than a thumbs-up or smiley face.
Driving is that last space for engagement with technology that heightens — rather than distracts from — real world emotion and the memory of an experience. This afternoon, for me, in the moment, the Tesla was the most instantly immersive experience of the three cars I drove. Hands down. But, sitting back at the end of the day, relaxing with a beer and my family, I remember the Polestar and the Porsche. They left me with memories. They left me with an experience. With the Tesla, I got a selfie and Tweeted it.