When will we just say ‘cars’?

“What are you driving at the moment?”

If you drive an EV, you’ll likely preface your answer by saying your car is electric. As early electric car adopters, why do we feel the need? A car is a car, right?

Okay, not quite.

I’m guilty of this with my job. When someone asks me, “what do you do for work?” I say, “I work in Marketing for an electric car subscription company” (which is often followed by, “what’s a car subscription???”). Though, I specify the ‘electric’ bit not just out of a sense of need, but also because I’m proud to be a part of it all.

I wonder if the pride thing is universal, driving zero emission, EV drivers are proud to say they drive electric and want to help others understand the benefits of it all. The same has happened for lots of new tech: the mobile phone, artificial intelligence and so on.

So, as the world continues to develop all this new transport tech, as we all learn to adopt a newer way of driving and understanding transport, when will electric cars become so intrinsically a part of our lives that we’ll stop mentioning the ‘electric’ bit and just say… ‘cars’?

Polestar 2 parked on road in West London

Where does the term ‘car’ come from?

The car as you and I know it has been around for over a hundred years, with the first widely produced “car” being seen as the Ford Model T, released in 1908. Of course, there are arguments as to whether that’s the first true ‘car’, because lots of the control layouts (gears, pedals, handbrake etc.) have all been moved around over the years. But it’s the earliest car most people have heard of.

“Car” is derived from ‘carriage’, with early motor-powered vehicles being called ‘horseless carriages’.

“Motorcar” seems more appropriate though, with ‘car’ becoming the more common way of referring to these new machines by the mid 1920s.

Maybe that’s it, then? “Motorcar” is quite an all-encompassing term, right? EVs are powered by electric motors in the same way that petrol and diesel cars are powered by internal combustion engines.

“Ah, but there’s the difference, one is a motor, and one is an engine”. I hear you. But those terms can be interchangeable and have been for some time; American’s call their cars ‘motors’ as a slang term and have been for years.

That said, KIA have been bold to specify a ‘motor’ is one powered by electricity and an ‘engine’ is one powered by fuel combustion, differentiating the two.

By that logic, then, the “motorcar” from a hundred years ago should have been electric… or called an ‘Enginecar’ (which doesn’t sound as good).

Nowadays, of course, the term ‘car’ is widely accepted to cover all forms of our four-wheeled-friends, electric, hydrogen, petrol or otherwise. But should it?

The ‘car’ has changed, and is everchanging

A blue Reliant Robin in London.
A Union Jack wrapped Citroën Ami in London.
Image Sources: Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “London (UK), Reliant Robin — 2010 — 1992” / CC BY-SA 4.0 & Stellantis/Citroën UK 

The Reliant Robin

A three wheeled, dry alternative to a motorbike that you could get to work in with a bike licence. No need to learn to pass a ‘car’ driving test, which was expensive. It got people out the rain and cold in the 1970s and 1980s. But then, is it a ‘bike’, or is it a ‘car’?

The Citroën Ami

A four wheeled, city dwelling runabout powered by electricity that you can drive on a category AM moped licence in the UK (and as young as 14 years old in France). Technically, because it’s so light and slow (just 28mph top speed), it’s classed as a quadricycle. But I refer you back to the question at the start: “What are you driving at the moment?”. You wouldn’t say “a quadricycle”, would you…?

The point here is…

‘Cars’ are taking all forms, shapes and sizes at the moment. From small machines like the Ami to large luxury SUVs like the Audi e-tron. If we’re liberal with the term when it comes to size and shape, why not the same when it comes to power?

It’s all in our heads…

Of course, the real crux of this is rooted in social norms and shifts in language over time thanks to technology changes.

As new tech comes about, new phrases and terms are used to describe it all. Or, in the EV case, we adapt existing phrases (‘car’, ‘braking’) to help us understand a development in technology (‘electric cars’, ‘regenerative braking’).

Marketing & societal norms

When electric cars first got mass-produced and introduced into the UK, marketers had to come up with clear, clever but concise ways of explaining their new models were advanced, not powered traditionally with an engine but familiar enough to buy. 

Trying to convince prospective new car buyers to even consider an EV as their next car was a huge, daunting task. Getting people to take electric vehicles seriously at a time when all previous iterations of EVs were small, unpractical, not fun to drive or good to look at, was tough. Where do you start? Could we even call them a car?

Nissan chose to take on the ‘norms’ and turn them on their head, with one of my favourite campaigns they broadcast in America:

Nissan knew that people would be familiar with the usual electrical household appliances (computers, microwaves, phones and so on), but an electric ‘car’ was new territory. So, they flipped things around and suggested a world where it was all powered by petrol engines. Driving a zero emission, all-electric car was no longer unreachable. They took the societal norms and redefined what they could look like. It’s very clever marketing.

“The 100% electric, zero gas Nissan Leaf. Innovation for the planet, innovation for all.”

In that simple slogan, they instantly told consumers this wasn’t just a new car that was powered differently, it was the start of the future, happening right now. A complete shift in the way we move around was coming, and it started here.

Technological advances

So, changes in the ‘norms’ change language, yes, but that’s of course in huge part thanks to technology advances.

30 years ago, if we didn’t know something, would we just tell someone to “google it”?

Nope – that’s happened since the rise of… well, Google. Basically everyone, of all generations, now uses that ‘just Google it’ phrase. The previously ‘new’ tech has become normal.

As tech moves forward, we all learn new terms and phrases and start to adopt them in our lives, without even realising. We’ll adopt EVs as the ‘norm’ the more we see, experience, and learn about them. That’s just the way it goes; we move with the times and the tech.

Take the smartphone. When that came about, early iPhone adopters felt the need to explain what it was and specify it was “smart”. Now though, we don’t, because it’s ‘normal’. It’s just a phone.

The same thing will happen with cars, I think – it already is really. Take search engine trends; up until recently, the term ‘electric cars’ has been climbing and climbing.

A graph from Google Trends showing the steady increase then decline of people searching "electric cars" on google.

So why has it dropped, is that because less people are searching ‘new electric car’ and just searching… ‘new car’? Hard to tell.

Just how long this will take before it’s globally recognised is uncertain, of course, but the simple fact of the matter is this: it only took what, a few years for the ‘smartphone’ to become a ‘phone’?

Something tells me we’ll be moving away from manufacturers selling their new ‘electric car’ toward just ‘new car’ again, very soon.

A graph from Google Trends showing the steady increase then decline of people searching "electric cars" on google.
Someone plugging in a FIAT 500e to charge while parked

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