(Hey y’all — I’m attempting to dictate this post rather than type it, so please forgive any sins of grammar or structure.)
My family and I own two extremely old cars, a 2001 Honda Odyssey minivan and a 2009 Toyota Prius hybrid. The van is literally falling apart, so we have been looking around lately for a new vehicle. Obviously, we would prefer an EV.
A representative from Ford saw me musing about it on Twitter, contacted me, and offered to loan me a Ford Mustang Mach-E electric vehicle for a week. I've been driving it for a few days and I thought I would report my early impressions, along with some larger reservations.
Holy s*** EVs are fun to drive
I should note up top that I’m not a car guy. I don’t know much about them, don’t much like them, and don’t much like driving them. I never learned to drive a stick shift or change the oil. I don’t drool over muscle cars or know what “hemi” means. Truth be told, I kind of hate car culture.
I should also note that I have only ever driven two EVs in my life. The first was the Kia EV6, which I test-drove last week. The second is this Ford. I can say very little about the fine differences in EV driving experience.
In short, I am the least qualified car reviewer on the planet.
As I said, both of my current cars are extremely old, so I am easily impressed by modern vehicular technology. I still get a kick out of remote key fobs. With this car, when you approach, it lights up, unlocks, and projects a picture of a Mustang on the ground next to the vehicle.
There are heated seats, a heated steering wheel, a wireless phone-charging pad, and a giant touch screen with about 50 menus. It all feels like a spaceship to me.
The first thing anyone notices when they drive an EV for the first time is the acceleration. With either of my gasoline vehicles — even the Prius when it’s driving in electric mode — there is a lag between pressing the accelerator and speeding up. You are always thinking a second or two ahead, about what speed you'll need to be going, and trying to anticipate. With the EV, acceleration is instant. You are going the speed you want to go the second you want to go it. It is wild.
And when you use one-pedal driving mode, when you let off on the accelerator, you immediately slow. It’s difficult to put in words, but it adds up to a sense of much more precise control.
I was driving home from a restaurant on Tuesday evening and fiddling with the Spotify menu when I drifted slightly onto the middle line between lanes. With a tiny little push — boomp — the car nudged me back into my lane, as though it were semi-sentient. I hadn’t even thought about the driver-assist features before that, but my one experience with them so far was reassuring, albeit faintly creepy.
I’m one of those old guys who resists getting a Tesla because I don’t want to be forced to do every-dang-thing with a touch screen. Give me something physical, with feedback that goes beyond a haptic buzz. I like knobs! Ford’s screen has one giant knob toward the bottom, for volume — it’s better than nothing.
In general, Ford has done a pretty good job with its screens and interface. Crucially, unlike in the Tesla, there’s a second screen just under eye level with key information like speed and range. On the bigger center screen, finding the basic stuff is painless. And there are some cool things if you poke around — you can save different profiles (mirror and seat positions, music playlists) that attach to different key fobs. Or you can use your phone as a key fob.
I haven’t used any of these features enough to know how they’ll age, but it’s all pretty dazzling.
The ride is smooth and quiet, the stereo system kicks ass, and that heated steering wheel … I mean, I’ve found nothing to complain about. And I’m pretty good at complaining. Car & Driver named the Ford Mach-E its EV of the year in 2021 and far be it from me to disagree.
It’s not clear Americans can handle this kind of power
However! As I was driving home, hands blissfully warm, thinking I might take the long way so I could drive more, I started feeling some reservations. I started thinking about what it would mean for EVs to become dominant, the default choice, with most people driving them.
For one thing, they make driving much more fun, even for someone like me who has a deep-seated antipathy toward cars and has never enjoyed driving. All the electric gizmos and screens and features, combined with the unbelievable torque and acceleration, make driving feel like a game in which you’ve just leveled up.
It's difficult to believe that if driving is more fun … people won't do it more. And electric or not, less driving is better.
The other thing is, the acceleration puts an enormous amount of power in your hands. For someone like me, who drives fairly carefully and pays attention, it can feel more precise and controlled, and thus safer. But it's not difficult to see how this kind of power could be misused. These cars can leap across intersections, going from standing still to 20 or 30 miles an hour in a second or two. If drivers aren't paying attention, it's a lot easier for an idle mistake to grow more consequential, involving more speed. And the constantly available torque is an invitation to try crazy passing maneuvers on the highway.
The US already has notoriously pedestrian-hostile infrastructure. If that stays the same, if nothing else changes, more torque and power in everyone's hands is going to lead to more collisions.
Driver-assist features might offset this somewhat. I do feel safer knowing that my car will keep me in my lane in normal driving conditions. But there's only so much software can do in the face of bad infrastructure. Lacking much data, we are all going on our guesses and impressions and priors, but my gut feeling is that putting tons more power in drivers’ hands without changing anything else is going to lead to an even more hostile environment for everyone not driving.
Ultimately, my fondest wish is that I lived somewhere where I didn't want or need a car at all. I hate cars. I hate driving. I really hate other people's driving, and other people's cars. EVs are such an enormous leap forward in environmental terms that it feels somewhat perverse to question them, but nonetheless, despite all the hype, despite all the fun, it's worth remembering that the top priority — not just for climate hawks but for humanists of all sorts — should be reducing the need for, and number of, cars.
The top priority should be making land use and planning choices that encourage walkable communities, with amenities mixed in, so people can get out of cars and get onto their feet or bicycles.
EVs are fun to drive. But no kind of driving is better than walking in the fresh air, getting exercise and mixing with your neighbors. I hope EVs don't pull our attention away from that fact.