In 2019, it’s difficult to find an auto manufacturer or transportation expert who isn’t predicting an explosion in the popularity and sales of electric vehicles in the 2020s — but what if they’re all wrong?
In 2010, another ascendant “e” technology had bookstores and publishers on edge.
According to industry experts and casual observers, the e-book was on the rise and it was coming to replace hardcovers and paperbacks and lay waste to bookstores across America.
In exchange for its higher upfront price, an e-reader promised its users greater portability (storing thousands of titles) and the ability to save money over the long run since e-books were cheaper to acquire than their paperback or hardcover counterparts.
The Kindle, which ushered in the e-book revolution, had just launched its third-generation model in 2010, and sales were up dramatically from the year prior.
Borders, already worried about falling sales in its physical stores as a result of competition from Amazon, made its e-books available on the Kobo e-reader earlier that same year.
Barnes and Noble’s NOOK would debut just one year later in 2011.
It seemed as if every large bookstore chain was moving from print to digital. The success of the Kindle had proven that e-books were popular among readers and not just a niche product.
Further, experts like Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were boldly predicting the demise of all physical books within just five years.
Everywhere you looked in 2010, the signs pointed to a digital publishing future centered around e-books. Pundits pointed to the music industry and said if bookstores and publishers didn’t adapt then they’d be out of business in several years.
Fast-forward to the end of the decade and the Kindle is on its tenth iteration (with additional higher-end models on offer).
However, sales figures for e-books are just one-tenth of those for physical books. And according to the Pew Research Center, only 7% of Americans read books in digital format only; this figure is still dwarfed by the 37% of Americans who read print books only and the 28% of Americans who read print and digital books.
The Kobo, which Borders was an early investor in but didn’t own, survived that store’s bankruptcy and lives on to this day, battling it out against the Kindle.
However, Barnes and Noble’s NOOK, once heralded as the future of that retailer’s strategy to maintain its relevance, is “on its deathbed” and its future looks bleak.
At the end of this decade, a new narrative, one centered around declining sales, has formed around e-books and the future of e-readers. At the same time, independent bookstores are enjoying a renaissance of sorts.
The reports of the imminent death of print books were, as it turns out, greatly exaggerated.
In 2019, a similar conversation is occurring in the electric vehicle space, and a similar panic of obsolescence is sweeping across traditional vehicle manufacturers.
Tesla’s Model 3, which could favorably be compared to the Kindle in that it demonstrated the demand for an “affordable” electric vehicle, remains the primary driver of electric vehicle sales figures in the United States.
Worried about remaining relevant, other manufacturers have scrambled to release competing “devices” like the Mustang Mach-E from Ford and the e-tron from Audi.
Again, there is no shortage of experts predicting the obsolescence of the internal combustion engine as manufacturers pledge to introduce more electrified models in the coming years.
“The future is electric” is a common refrain across an industry that until recently doubted whether electric vehicles even had a market of interested buyers.
Like the Kindle, the electric vehicle revolution, to date, has been mostly powered by enthusiasts and early adopters, and it’s been juiced by incentives, some of which are on their way out.
As the Pew Research Center noted in 2012, “device [e-reader] owners in general are more likely to prefer owning books in all formats than the general population — the more well-to-do device owners most of all.”
Similarly, electric vehicle owners are mostly from high-income households. According to a survey conducted by CarMax and CleanTechnica, “the largest share of households with hybrid and electric cars earned at least $200,000.”
Electric vehicles have found a market, but questions remain as to whether there are enough interested buyers outside this group of early adopters to justify predictions of the ascendancy of electric vehicles over their internal combustion counterparts.
Instead, the future is likely more muddled (and varied) than overly optimistic projections of electric vehicle sales would have us believe.
As battery production costs come down, it’s possible households will have an electric vehicle and an internal combustion engine vehicle and use both, just like many households now have an e-reader and still buy and display (who doesn’t love a good bookshelf?) print books.
But claims that lack boldness rarely make headlines, even if those middle-of-the-road claims are the likeliest of all possible futures.
On the eve of a new decade, the boldest claim about electric vehicles may be that the next greatest thing is sometimes just another thing.