The electric supercar seduction of climate sceptics

Alluring hybrid-electric supercars help create a seductive story that addressing climate change is about smarter technology and entrepreneurship, rather than sacrifice and socialism. And Elon Musk should be the poster boy.

My uncle is the kind of guy that isn’t quite ready to accept that burning fossil fuels will lead to dangerous climate change, partly out of fear of the implications he thinks might flow from addressing the problem. 

To help understand my uncle, Christine Milne is the kind of person that gives him night sweats. He created a successful business on his own literally from nothing but dirt – and took plenty of risks in doing it. For him creating wealth is something to be celebrated, not taxed. He absolutely loathes bureaucracy, and sees government involvement like a dead weight slowing down individual initiative. 

If people like him can be made to feel comfortable about efforts to contain carbon pollution it would represent a major breakthrough. He probably doesn’t represent the standard western Sydney marginal electorate voter, but his kind of perspective is highly prevalent amongst the Liberal Party base. Win him over, and you can probably win over a reasonable proportion of the Liberal Party membership too.

Fortunately there’s hope he might be able to just suspend his fear of Christine Milne and accept the need to address climate change. It’s embodied in the story of making electric vehicles sexy. 

You see my uncle loves maverick entrepreneurs and he loves beautiful and elegant technology.

Back in 2004 I recall he had all his emails printed out for him to read. And staff worked off photocopies of handwritten notes.

When I visited him in 2010 it had all changed. The reason? The iPhone, and Steve Jobs taking back Apple. Finally here was an attractive, elegantly designed and effortlessly functional piece of technology that he couldn’t resist falling in love with. Even better, the man behind it was an entrepreneur who had taken back his company from a bunch of administrative bureaucrats.

For as long as I’ve known him he has always driven a BMW – why? Simple, because he thinks they’re the best. Last time I saw him he said, “you know what, if only they’d create a hybrid car that’s sexy, I’d buy it.”    

Just two and a bit years later and I can offer him hybrid cars and indeed fully electric Teslas that are some of the sexiest motor vehicles on the market today.

While it isn’t exactly breaking records for fuel economy, the McLaren P1 plug-in hybrid can take you to 350 kilometres an hour, handles like it’s on rails and manages better fuel economy than the four cylinder Falcon. And for that city commute you won’t consume an ounce of petrol if it’s under 10km, as this can be handled purely through the electric engine.

There’s also a hybrid Porsche 918 that lapped iconic German race track the Nurburgring in one of the fastest times ever. And a plug-in hybrid La Ferrari in red is the kind of thing that would go up as posters on teenage boys’ bedroom walls.

There’s even a BMW on offer – the i8 hitting show rooms in 2014. They’ve managed to produce a car with gull-wing doors (what could be more sexy?!) and acceleration that would leave a gas guzzling V8 Commodore in its dust, while consuming 30 per cent less fuel than a Toyota Prius.

But what I think would win him over is Elon Musk and his Tesla Model S. The fully-electric Model S is a beautiful looking car which accelerates faster than a BMW M5. What’s more, it transports several passengers in luxury with plenty of room for their luggage. 

But the clincher for my uncle would be that it’s led by a true entrepreneur in Elon Musk. A guy who made millions in Silicon Valley out of PayPal, then backed it up through a successful float of SolarCity, and won’t be told what to do by anyone. Even if Musk’s Tesla business were to go bankrupt, my uncle would still admire the guy.

Now of course the fuel economy of a McLaren P1 or a La Ferrari falls well short of what’s really required. In addition the speeds these cars are capable of are completely ridiculous and superfluous in the heavily speed-regulated roads of Australia. And their price tags are astronomical.

But they are a potent symbol of how green technology could represent a superior and desirable alternative to the conventional status quo, and that is critical to persuading people like my uncle. 

For a significant number of people, addressing climate change is associated with sacrifice and doing without. They link this with wider green movement initiatives of communes, anti-capitalist sentiments, simple living and eschewing modern conveniences.

Yet addressing climate change could instead be a story about harnessing entrepreneurial creativity and smarter engineering to develop cleaner, more efficient products with equivalent or even superior functionality to the status quo. 

Sexy electric cars may not be the answer to all our woes. But they provide a seductive vision of what might be possible when government policy provides clear direction about what’s required in the future. 

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