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Electric Vehicles

The Wild West of Luxury EVs

The market for fancy electric vehicles is anybody’s game.

A Rolls-Royce.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

One-pedal driving is a revelatory perk. Lift your foot off the accelerator in an electric vehicle and its regenerative braking kicks in, slowing the car while channeling recovered energy back into the battery. Once a person masters the feel, it’s possible to drive for miles on end without touching the brake pedal.

There’s just one problem: it’s jerky. During 50,000 miles in my own EV, I’ve learned to gently let off the accelerator to minimize the jostling. But, like working the clutch in a stick-shift, this is an acquired skill. The issue vexed the engineers at Rolls-Royce who wanted their electrified offering to replicate the “champagne stop” chauffeurs must master: stopping so gently that the masters of the universe riding in the back spill nary a drop of bubbly. In the end, they dealt with the aggressiveness of regen braking by turning it off.

Preservation of prosecco is a small quirk among a batch of big questions about how to electrify the luxury car. On the surface, this sounds like a simple matter: replace the gasoline guts with an electric powertrain, and you’re done. However, although the traditional luxury brands have embarked on the inevitable transition to electric, it’s a little murky just what a luxury EV is, who gets to make one, and whether the future of luxury really means never driving yourself again.

In the gasoline days there was little confusion. Toyota, Honda, and Nissan had their upscale brands (Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti, respectively) to push more plush versions of what were, fundamentally, the same cars. Brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz offered performance alongside leather cushiness, all at a price point attainable to the upper-middle class. Porsche pushed a kind of performance-first luxury; the likes of Bentley and Rolls-Royce sold unattainable exclusivity to the 1 percent.

Along the way to the mainstream EV, definitions got a little looser. Thanks to the zippy performance, sex appeal, and high price of the Model S and X, Tesla positioned these as luxury EVs and peeled away buyers from the likes of Bimmer and Benz. Yet in terms of creature comforts, it’s hard to call a Tesla luxurious. Its spartan interior, defined by enormous touchscreens and little else, reflects the minimalist design language of Silicon Valley, not the rich Corinthian leather of old-fashioned style. Tesla has also been dogged by complaints about manufacturing inconsistencies such as thin paint and uneven door panel gaps — the kind of things that make German engineers toss and turn at night.

Elon Musk’s followers in the EV startup space are experimenting with the limits of the “luxury car,” too. Lucid’s Air is a more traditional big, posh sedan, with ridiculous power numbers and interior that tries to toe the line between LED future and maximalist past. Rivian’s R1T and R1S, meanwhile, build on the fact that pickups and SUVs have morphed from utilitarian workhorses into oversized luxury rides that command prices north of $50,000 — which happened long before EVs entered the chat. It doesn’t hurt that selling a vehicle on luxury allows a company to charge more, which brings in precious revenue a startup needs to get on its feet and helps to mask the high cost of the battery (the big challenge for anyone trying to deliver the true budget EV).

Now the traditional luxury brands are coming in force. BMW’s first mass-produced EV, the rounded-cube i3, was an avatar of the previous decade’s idea of an electric vehicle, full of design quirks meant to communicate futurism and sustainability. The i4, produced starting in 2021, looks a lot more like, well, a BMW sedan, with an interior that melds the BMW look of old (lots of buttons and fancy accents) with a 14.9-inch curved display meant to be a wow feature. The story is similar at Mercedes-Benz. Inside, it is a cushy, plush take on the LED spaceship look. From the outside, the main clue to the EQS’s electrification is the sealed-off grille. (EVs don’t need the open grille to suck in lots of air like a combustion car does, making possible the Tesla Model 3’s stark closed mouth.)

Luxury EV-makers are also learning how to pamper their prospective buyers by sanding off the rough edges of EV ownership, like range anxiety. More miles generally means more battery and therefore, more money. Pricey models from Rivian, Tesla, and Lucid allow the well-heeled buyer to reach 400 miles of range or more, and the Mercedes EQS is EPA rated to 350 miles but may deliver even more in the real world. Meanwhile, the “entry” EV is stuck with 250 to 300, and BMW’s range barely breaks the 300 mark.

Rolls-Royce is smoothing out not only its champagne stops, but also its starts. The super-luxe electric Spectre doesn’t use its monstrous torque to rocket off the line, but instead is engineered to glide from a start in a way that makes the car’s enormous mass invisible to its occupants. Meanwhile, BMW and Mercedes seem to have solved the riddle of cornering and feel in an EV, with Car and Driver saying the i4 outperforms its gasoline counterpart. (It doesn’t hurt that EVs carry their big batteries along the bottom, giving them a low center of gravity.) Hyundai makes excellent EVs, but there’s no mistaking that you’re in a BMW.

Besides comfort and performance, luxury carmakers have typically marketed their offerings on advanced technology. Here, the future of luxury EVs comes into focus. The big vehicle technology yet to come is true autonomy — after all, what's more luxurious than having someone, or something, else do the driving?

EVs and autonomous driving technologies are already intertwined, mostly because of Musk’s public insistence on Tesla’s Autopilot features and vision for full self-driving — not to mention the many public controversies about the system’s failures. Things are set to stay that way as automakers, and especially luxury ones, race to be the first to offer new features.

A recent Los Angeles Timesstory about Mercedes-Benz’s $45 billion move to go all-electric by 2030 notes the brand’s desire to retake the luxury EV market from Tesla, and a big part of that is by pulling ahead of Musk’s brand on autonomy. This year, Mercedes became the first brand to be given explicit permission in the U.S. to go ahead with Level 3 autonomous features in a vehicle on public roads.

Level 3 is a turning point. Levels 0, 1, and 2 in the Society of Automotive Engineers’ classification scheme include technologies now widely available in vehicles. Think of lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control. These features lessen the driver’s burden, but they do not replace her. Levels 4 and 5 represent something that could truly be called self-driving. Level 3 is the bridge: the first time when — at slow speeds, and only under controlled circumstances on chosen roadways — the car is permitted to drive.

It’s also the most harrowing. An expert who spoke to me in February about Mercedes’ plan called Level 3 a “nightmare scenario.” The main worry is over the “handoff,” the moment when the human must be ready to retake control from the machine. Handoffs have the potential to lead to confusion over who’s in charge, and even momentary confusion on the road can have dire consequences. Some safety experts question whether we should allow Level 3 autonomy on public streets at all.

Ultimately, those fears may be moot. This technology is coming, and the future of (not) driving will be spearheaded by luxury cars as their makers jockey for technological supremacy. But even if Mercedes or another legacy car company pulls ahead in autonomous tech, they will still find the EV market a wilder, more competitive space than the staid market for luxury combustion cars ever was.

Andrew Moseman profile image

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles.


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