The North American International Auto Show kicked off in Detroit earlier this week, and it seem that almost every manufacturer is either promising or delivering some version of an electric car. Chevy's Volt was even named Car of the Year. And nobody cares.

Well, not nobody, but certainly not most consumers. A poll taken this month found that only one-fifth of drivers would consider buying an electric car, though they'd have issues with high prices and any costs associated with building the infrastructure to support them.

Their expectations for those vehicles also seem to mirror those of their current cars and trucks, so the electric versions should be just as convenient and perform the same, too.

That's why in spite of what are truly revolutionary vehicle development plans, the marketing of electric cars is barely flickering:

  • Conceptually -- "It's more car than electric" promises the Volt tagline, as explicit deference to the idea that electric cars need to be as good or better than their fossil-fuel counterparts. Nissan's Leaf commercials are more overt (the polar bear traveling to hug the Leaf owner), though without any specificity provided he could be happy because the driver chose to leave his car parked instead of drive it.
  • Visually -- Ford promotes its electric Focus as a clickable box on its website, but does so with the same emphasis it does for local dealer promotions and its F-150 toughness test. Mercedes doesn't even mention anything on theirs (even though it debuted a super-dooper electric sedan at the auto show). My informal visits to a few showrooms revealed no obvious emphasis on electric anything.
  • Conversationally -- Most carmakers have approached social media as just another marketing channel. looks and acts like a promotional site, sponsoring silly games for naming paint colors, for instance. Nissan hired a social media marketing firm to produce promotional videos, while Ford hasn't used its celebrated social brilliance to do much of anything for electric (perhaps yet?)

What automakers are doing instead is happily relegating electric to be one of many sources of power -- along with diesel and alternate fuels like natural gas and hydrogen -- planning to market hybrid vehicles perhaps more aggressively than electric-only. The presumption is that vehicles will run on gas for the vast majority of the time (i.e. perform just like always) and then realize some fuel savings or environmental efficiency around the margins; or, conversely, putt along for under 100 miles on an electric charge and then switch to a fossil fuel to do 2x or more of the real driving.

I know it's politically correct to praise the innate intelligence of the American Consumer, but are we stupid?

The automakers must think so. They're banking on us not remembering the last of many oil price shocks, and continuing to ignore immediate and frequent proof that the global climate is getting, at best, unpleasantly unpredictable. The reality -- no, the truth -- is that the next spike in oil prices will make every electric car seem like a steal, and most daily commuter driving experiences have no relation whatsoever to the fantasies of speed and performance that get mentioned in surveys about expectations for vehicles.

So wouldn't the smarter and more honest way to approach marketing electric cars look something like this:

  • Conceptually -- Think of the benefits that will accrue to the first carmaker that runs a TV commercial stating how much a $1 spike in oil prices will cost someone to operate their gaz-guzzling SUV, and then promises that less than half that expense will buy them the infrastructure for electrical recharging (and the insulation from all future hikes). Taking responsibility for informing customers is a quantum leap from simply playing to their inconsistent beliefs.
  • Visually -- Why couldn't a segment of every carmaker business make a commitment to responsibility -- state some goals, like x reduction in greenhouse gases, or y dollars saved from getting sent to Middle Eastern despots who want to kill us -- and then position their electric and hybrid vehicles as part of this ongoing campaign, and not trying to pass them off as sorta kinda regular cars only not as good?
  • Conversationally -- This is the biggest a-ha, I think: Build real, agnostic, useful networks of people interested in alternative energy, transportation, and the future of the auto industry (instead of brand-sponsored social media marketing gimmicks). Ford should be delivering a community of substance, not UGC entertainment, for its upcoming electric vehicle. Could this be a function in which the automakers collaborate?

Whether we consumers are stupid or just have the memories of gnats, I think it's in the best interests of the automakers and us to have a more sincere, focused, and substantive conversation about electric vehicles. It's not happening so far.

(Image credit: Early American Automobile Manufacturers)

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