EVs Need Tough Love, Not Cheerleaders

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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Having reviewed cars for 20 years, I’ve had my share of automakers calling to complain when I give their car a negative review. It actually doesn’t happen much anymore, in part because I stand my ground, and also because my answer is always the same: “It’s called tough love.” If I tell readers and shoppers that your car is amazing, when it’s obviously crap, then why should anyone believe me when you do deliver an amazing car? Come to think of it, you should be thanking me for the bad review.

EVs and their makers shouldn’t be any different. They need tough love and honest, warts-and-all appraisals. But too many people who write about EVs – or add their two cents to Internet comment boards – have become uncritical cheerleaders. They’re confusing support for electrification with unconditional praise. They assume that every EV critic has an axe to grind or a hidden agenda, maybe a family coal mine tucked away in West Virginia.

Chevrolet Bolt EV at the auto trade show AutoMobility LAThere’s a reason why many EVs are struggling for traction with consumers. (Photos: Getty Images)

Honesty is the best policy

When it comes to self-improvement, looking in the mirror and seeing Brad Pitt is never the way to go. For EVs, the latest act of willful blindness came with 2019 sales. The sobering message of 2019 should be unmistakable: America remains a long way from adopting EVs en masse. Yet instead of a step back and re-appraisal, several EV supporters preferred to rationalize the failures or attack the messenger. The good news is that EVs are finding a foothold, and a fresh wave of models can only boost their popularity. But we need to be honest about the hurdles ahead. I’ll list some here, in descending order of what I see as the toughest challenges.

  • EVs still cost too much, relative to conventional cars.
  • The charging infrastructure is weak, especially for non-homeowners without a personal garage.
  • EVs don’t travel far enough on a charge, and take too long to charge.
  • There aren’t enough models to choose from, especially mainstream and family-sized SUVs and pickups.
  • The supply of existing models is limited, and several aren’t available in all 50 states.
  • The government isn’t doing enough to promote and support EV adoption.

Short sellers are a convenient scapegoat for Tesla, as a quick hashtag search demonstrates. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Enough with the EV Pollyannas

So why am I bringing this up? It’s because so many EV promoters barely talk about this stuff. They’d rather play the victim or promote conspiracy theories, including a real doozy: That the media or investors are out to get Tesla. That would come as news to, say, General Motors or Toyota, to name just two global automakers who would kill for the often-fawning Tesla coverage and 24/7 media spotlight, or the love of venture capitalists.

Now, I’m not talking about the Tesla owner who loves her car and becomes an unpaid spokesperson for the brand. That’s healthy, no different from the guy who drives a Volkswagen GTI and wants everyone to know about it. I’m talking about the EV folks who are so bubble-wrapped that even the mildest critique makes them go “pop.” While we’re at it, can we declare a ban on Tesla supporters using the word “shorts” as an all-purpose deflection against fair analysis? First, most Tesla fans couldn’t tell you how a short stock sale even works. Their urge to ascribe a financial conflict-of-interest to anyone who grapples with Tesla or Elon Musk is a cynical smokescreen. If these supposed “shorts” are so ubiquitous, and so influential, why is Tesla’s stock worth more than GM and Ford combined? As for journalists, trust me: We’re too broke to have any stock portfolio worth worrying about.

Porsche TaycanPorsche’s Taycan was widely criticized by Tesla fans, even before anyone had driven the new electric sports car. (Photo: Porsche)

Fan fiction

If any media outlet existed solely to lavish praise on, say, GM and its executives, while attacking its competitors, readers would rightly surmise that something doesn’t smell right. Yet some sites that purport to “cover” EVs or Tesla (most notoriously, Electrek) barely bother with the illusion of objectivity. They’re unabashed fans. Too often, the coverage resembles fan fiction. The worst of the Tesla fanboys can’t even stomach the idea of competition.

That phenomenon reached its crass apogee with the Porsche Taycan. You know, from a little company whose cars have dominated the 24 Hours of LeMans and other international races for more than a half-century. That Taycan earned a near-universal thumbs-up from critics, including myself, because it set new benchmarks in fun-to-drive electric performance and ultra-fast charging. No matter. Before anyone had even driven it, the Taycan spawned a cottage industry of Tesla disciples scoffing at the very idea that Porsche might know a thing or two about building cars or advancing technology. It’s been a revolting display, topped only by Elon Musk’s petty, personal attack on Bill Gates for having the nerve to buy a Taycan. If the idea was to make Porsche’s own loyalists vow to never buy a Tesla – if these are the weepers and poor sports they’d have to join – I’d say it succeeded.

Exhaust fumes from a carBeing pro-environment doesn’t mean closing our eyes to EV issues and concerns. (Photo: Getty Images)

Countering disinformation

Now,  I get why EV fans can be vociferous or defensive, and I’ve been guilty of it myself at times. Climate change appears the overarching challenge of our times, and it’s frustrating to see so much denial, backsliding and disinformation. Electric cars have also become symbol as well as substance, a convenient stand-in for bitter arguments over politics and the environment. And oh, man, are there naysayers and trolls on the anti-EV side, proffering specious arguments that need to be countered with facts. Still, in the interest of fairness and civility, and a common desire to see EVs succeed, a few suggestions:

  • Don’t shoot the messenger. When a well-informed source analyzes and critiques EVs, it doesn’t follow that they hate electric cars, are jealous of Elon Musk, or are in cahoots with Big Oil.
  • Tesla is a great car company. But they’re one car company. Other automakers are deserving of our time and attention. Some have been quite successful. A little humility can go a long way.
  • Be patient, and seek perspective. Electric cars are a long-term play, not an overnight sensation. When owners of traditional cars describe why an electric car isn’t right for them, don’t rationalize or dismiss their concerns. Acknowledge that roughly two percent of Americans are buying an EV, which means that 98 percent are buying something else. There are reasons for that, including ingrained habits and the path of least resistance. But changing and improving EVs will be easier than changing the soul of the American buyer.
  • Leave the cheerleading for the sidelines.

About the Author

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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