Why Do People Resist New Technology Like Electric Vehicles?
Photo by Nadine Shaabana

Why Do People Resist New Technology Like Electric Vehicles?

Last week California air regulators voted to ban all new internal combustion car sales starting in 2035. The news was met with a predictable mix of responses: Some lauded the decision as forward-thinking and environmentally responsible; others saw it as government overreach–an attack on consumer freedom and the free market.

Whether the arguments against EVs are in good faith or not (they’re often not), the fact remains that this burgeoning technology has been met with fierce resistance since Teslas started hitting the road back in 2008. It’s easy to find examples of people keying EVs, rolling coal to spite them or blocking chargers with gas-powered cars.

A part of human nature is naturally resistant to change and to the unknown. It has served us well evolutionarily over the past 200,000 years. Tradition keeps us safe when it comes to eating the right wild berries or choosing a route to the next town. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there were people in the Roman Empire spreading myths about how using indoor plumbing makes your sword hand weak, or that riding in a chariot would make your uterus fall out. Even without political tribalism and pressure from the fossil fuel industry, new tech can be divisive.

Rosabeth M. Kanter, a professor of business at Harvard Business School, who studies these ideas, says the number one reason people resist change is that they fear a loss of control over their lives. This may explain why the ban on new gas cars in California has faced some backlash.

“For people who are feeling like life is slipping out of their control–that sinister forces are pushing them around–they're likely to not want to be forced into making a change,” says Kanter. Whether or not the state could have accomplished the same goal without a mandate is debatable, but due to the California Air Resources Board’s successful history of driving national policy with ambitious state-level laws, it’s not surprising they chose to take that risk.

However, Kanter also notes that plenty of new tech innovations have been welcomed with open arms. Take the smartphone, for instance. Steve Jobs announced the iPhone in 2007. By 2017, 77% of Americans owned a smartphone. Cars, of course, were always going to be slower transition—after all, the lifecycle of a car is at least three or four times as long as that of a smartphone. But why has there been so much cultural resistance to the growing EV market share?

The biggest and most obvious answer is cost. Smartphones aren’t cheap, but there’s a big difference between $700 and $70,000. The current batch of EVs on the road are simply too expensive for the average person to afford. Knowing that demand would outstrip initial manufacturing capacity, EV makers have chosen to offer luxury models first in order to make as much money as possible while ramping up production. And while legacy OEMs are beginning to enter the scene and change this dynamic, we’re still early in this story and costs are still extremely high.

Kanter says that to get consumers to adopt new tech, the transition has to be smooth. It has to be easy. Remember taking your flip phone to a Verizon or AT&T and trading it in for a smartphone? These companies made it simple and offered excellent financing plans–just a few extra dollars added to your bill every month. And while there are about a thousand different EV rebates and incentives on offer (see Wednesday’s newsletter) finding and understanding how to apply these deals is a whole lot harder than trading in a Motorola Razr for an iPhone.

Regarding smooth transitions: Charging infrastructure remains another huge impediment. While EV range anxiety is perceived to be much more of an issue than it actually is, the fact remains that America’s charging infrastructure is inadequate–especially rural areas in the middle of the country. If California wants to get everyone in an EV as quickly as possible, the state will need to make EV charging as seamless as gassing up.

Another thing Kanter says made the transition to smartphones different from EVs and other technology. New phones offered immediate and obvious benefits. Maps and internet access alone would’ve sold the devices. They also connected customers to networks that were pretty much inaccessible without the device. Nobody wants to miss out on the group chat drama. “The minute they see things that are benefits for themselves, you don't have to argue with them anymore,” says Kanter. “The benefits are right there in front of them.”

The benefits of electric vehicles, on the other hand, are more subtle or even existential. Calculating the cost of recharging the vehicle or the cost per mile of driving almost requires some familiarity with high-school physics. While the math isn’t necessarily complex or difficult, it’s new and foreign enough to present a barrier. Yes, it’s usually cheaper per mile to drive an EV than to fill up with gas, but to figure that out you have to know what a kilowatt hour is and how many your car consumes per mile of travel and how much electricity costs per kilowatt hour. Climate benefits only really apply at a society- and perhaps planetary level.

Of course you have this entire debate playing out against a climate in which batteries and gasoline have somehow become political footballs. If “opposing any policy from the other side” remains de rigueur in Washington, EV adoption will be slowed by politics…until the transition is truly seamless and the benefits are impossible to ignore.

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