The Wringer Washer Vs. The Electric Car

By Bill Moore

Posted: 23 May 2010

When Deloitte Consulting came out with their study, Gaining Traction: A Customer View of Electric Vehicle Mass Adoption in the U.S. Automotive Market earlier this month, the media made much of the fact that electric cars were likely, in Deloitte's view, at least, to be adopted by consumers at about the same rate as washing machines through the Twentieth Century, taking some 80 years to reach just over 80% of households [See the chart they used above]. Do a Google search for "Deloitte study electric cars" to see all the various media reports emphasizing the slow growth of the market for electric cars. For example, "Major Study Predicts Electric Car Adoption Will be Low," reads the headline on GM-Volt.com, pretty much mirroring the view of the likes of Reuters, Economic Times, Fast Company, Wired, etc. Even here on EV World, we dutifully posted links to these reports, as well.

But then I got to thinking about Nicholas Felton's chart, especially the plots for washing machines, stoves, clothes dryers and refrigerators, and it suddenly occurred to me what I was seeing. Can you spot it? Let me help you. Take a look at the graph below tracking the rise of women in the workplace.

Notice any similarity? The rate of adoption of labor saving appliances for the wife would appear to track fairly closely with their entering the workplace. The more hours they worked away from home, the less time they had to engage in the very tedious and time consuming job of washing and drying clothes. Which also raises a second issue of why it took so long for the clothes washer to reach the 80 percent level: lack of innovation.

If you look at photographs and advertisements of washing machines from the 1930's, they are little changed from machines first advertised in 1908. The only real difference was the introduction of the electric motor to run the pump, turn the agitator, and cycle the wringer or mangle, as it was also called. In fact, it would take half a century to see the wringer disappear off the washing machine, replaced by a mechanically-timed spin dry cycle, as manufacturers finally figured out that women didn't want to spend all day squeezing their wet laundry between rubber rollers... twice: once to remove the dirty soap water, and a second time to remove the rinse water.

Not only was the pace of innovation painfully slow when it came to women's labor saving devices, but middle American appliance manufacturers hadn't yet caught on to the idea of planned obsolescence introduced into the auto industry in the 1950s. There are households across America that are still using 1950-era wringer washers 60 years later, some in the name of the new "green frugality" movement. You can even buy working replicas for $899. Those Maytags, Amanas, Hotpoints and Speed Queens were built to last and last, unlike computers, cellphones and television sets, where the pace of technological innovation and fickle fashion makes such devices obsolete in 18 months or less, fostering continual churn in the market and even more innovation.

But back to the central question of the rate at which electric cars will be adopted by society, the rate of consumer acceptance chart above also seems to suggest that the pace of adoption is also driven by gender. As a general rule, men have not, historically, at least, done the laundry or cooked the meals. We -- and I include myself in this -- do tend to take a far keener interest in technology, be it automotive or electronics. Look at the pace of purchases of radios, reaching 50% of the market in less than 10 years. It took just about the same period of time for color television to reach the same 50% of households. It took even less for the Internet.

I contend that an electric car is far closer to a piece of electronics than a kitchen appliance; and, as such, it will appeal to men far more than to women, initially. If I look at the percentage of men reading EV World versus women, it is something around 75 % male versus 25% female; and in our early days it was more like 90-10, which was a function of who was using the Internet back in the late 1990s. Still, this suggests that it will be men who will be shopping for that first electric car; and that means that the decision making process won't be driven by logic, but by emotion.

Much as we'd like to view ourselves as logical, hard-nosed, count-the-cost creatures, men aren't really Vulcans; and neither are women, for that matter. There's a ying-yang quality in our reasoning powers that is strongly influenced by emotions that include aesthetics (styling and creature comforts) and the perception of risk (vehicle performance). The classic example is the Harley Davidson motorcycle and the "logic" that goes into buying what is probably a far cry from a necessity for most owners. It's a grown boy's toy, plain and simple, and one that is used few times year. Of the more than 6.5 million motorcycles registered in America, less than 10% are driven seasonally, and just over 4% are used on a daily basis as a primary form of transportation. The rest sit for that occasional weekend romp, usually by aging baby boomers (1) with discretionary income to spend.

Take a look at this next chart. It accompanied the original Nicholas Felton chart from the New York Times that Deloitte uses in their study. It depicts American household spending by category and income level. After housing, transportation is the highest consumption item on the graph for all three income groups.

"Where does the plug-in and battery-powered car fit into this picture?" I asked myself. "Is the electric car more washing machine or computer?" Here is my hastily jotted list bullet points. The electric car is:

With these four alone, I could easily make the case to the Mrs. -- who is likely to be much more logical and pragmatic about this decision than I would be -- that we really do need that Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt or CODA or Think or... take your pick.

Of course, there are also the imponderables: range, charging time, battery life, cold weather performance, but each of these can be "reasoned/rationalized" to my satisfaction. I don't drive more than 30 miles a day. My car sits in the garage 23 hours a day. Prius NiMH batteries are going strong at 100,000 miles, so why not lithium? I can pre-warm the batteries overnight or drive my back-up gas-banger on really cold days.

Even cost is becoming less of an issue with the introduction of the Nissan Leaf at US$32,850 prior to federal and state incentives.

Yes, being guy who is as subject to our own form of "irrationality" when it comes to "big boy toy" purchases, as our female counterparts are to theirs, I can come up with as many arguments in favor of buying that grid-connected electric car (GEV), as those against. How about you, brother?

Taking this perspective into consideration, it is my view that the electric-drive vehicle -- in all its guises -- isn't going to take half a century to reach 80% of the market. Depending on the rate of impact of a whole series of social, economic, political, technological, military and environmental drivers, it could come a lot more quickly than we might assume. That, by the way, also happens to be the perspective of the International Energy Agency, as depicted in the final graph below.

So, washing machine or cellphone? Which do you think it'll be?

This isn't my first look at the parallels between washing machines and electric cars. Check out Of Front-loading Washing Machines and the Aptera 2e.

(1) According to a new study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), the number of motorcyclists 45 and older killed in crashes nearly quadrupled from 2001 to 2005 (the last year for which data is available). Crashes among this age group increased more than 60 percent during that time, compared with a 6 percent drop in the number of crashes for younger motorcycle riders.

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