Gas Stations, Electric Cars and Changing Minds

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Managing change is a process, something between a science and an art, taught in all respectable business schools and management courses. There really are 2 reasons for teaching it:

  1. Management: If you are managing a team, a division or a company, you need to understand the emotional and psychological blocks to change, and what it will take to get employees and partners to support change.
  2. Marketing: If you are responsible for marketing a product to consumers, or creating an entirely new product, you need to have a solid understanding of what inertia keeps customers in place and what it will take to change them.

In the end, it boils down to the same principle. People will not change their behaviours unless they have at least one of two "change motivators":

  • Their current pain must be high enough to entice them to switch
  • The new product/process must be exciting enough to encourage them to switch

Either it hurts and you want better, or everything is fine but you are wowed by how much better it could be. Prime examples include the iPhone (exciting), and the vacuum cleaner (pain).

When it comes to electric cars, there is a complex process of purchasing, driving, and refueling that occurs every day among billions of people worldwide. To get them to change, an alternative would need to cover one or both of the change motivators.

  • Pain: Most Nissan Leaf or similar buyers purchase the car to manage emotional pain. They feel very strongly about the pollution caused by a tailpipe or oil refining. Buying a small electric car relieves that pain for them.
  • Exciting: Tesla has succeeded in making their cars sexy and desirable, the iPhone effect. Even those who do not feel any pain at all with the current car distribution model desire the Tesla experience.

However, neither of these will be sufficient to lead to mass adoption. The number of people who feel actual pain due to knowledge of pollution is infinitesimally small, while very few people will be "excited" enough by a cool Tesla car to change their entire car purchase and usage habits (especially at Tesla's pricing).

What will it take to lead to the change? Some combination of the change motivators, of course.

And here, I think, is where the pain is: the gas station. No matter how you look at it, no matter how much gas stations have added self-service, drive-through coffee or any number of other distractions, car refueling is a waste of time. It steals 10-15 minutes 1-2 times per week from the average person's life. If someone doesn't have a gas station in their normal driving path, add 10-15 minutes to get to/from the gas station.

At the same time, cars sit idle far more time than they are used, which is the motivation for car or ride sharing apps like Lyft and Uber. Thus, I coin "Avi's Theorem of Car Change":

For an electric car to work, it must reduce the amount of time wasted on fueling each week without reducing the distance traveled.

Let's take this apart:

  1. "Reduce the amount of time wasted on fueling," means that the gas station must go away. The car must have a way of "filling" when idle. This could be in a parking spot, in a garage, at the office, or next to someone's home. And it has to do this without complex additional work - including finding a charger and plugging it in. I park my car, walk out of it and into my office, and the car immediately starts "filling".
  2. "without reducing the distance traveled." The one time people are willing to spend that 10 minutes filling is on a long trip; they expect to. While doing very long distances - greater than a single tank's worth - the return is felt immediately and thus the willingness to spend the time refueling. A transportation alternative that either cannot go the distance because of charge limitations or requires significant downtime during the "refuel/recharge" process will not be accepted into the mass market.

Both Better Place (RIP) and Tesla tried to solve the distance question with battery changes, without making it significantly worse, in terms of time wasted, than petroleum-based refueling. The solution was necessary but not sufficient. Making an electric car as easy to drive distances as a petroleum car will make it reasonably acceptable, but will not get the average consumer to change. It has to be better.

Of course, price and channel (convenience of purchase) and service considerations all come into play, as they do with any product. However, until both of these are met, any car will struggle greatly to take the mass market.