Can an electric car have a soul?
When an electric performance car debuts for the first time, the eyes of the world focus their attention on discovering two particular figures: the range, and the acceleration. But upon unveiling the Taycan, Porsche were keen to foist significant emphasis on their claims that the car has something otherwise overlooked in an electric car: a soul. And this brought to the forefront of my attention a question that’s been rattling around inside my head for far too long: can an electric car have a soul?
For myself and countless other enthusiasts, it is the quality of having a soul that is treasured more than any other in a car. But asking whether it’s possible for an electric car to possess a soul spawns a multitude of other pressing questions - the first and most prevalent of which is: when we conclude that a car has a soul, what precisely do we mean by that?
This question is one that’s open to near infinite conjecture and interpretation, but from my personal perspective, a car has a soul when it connects with me on a transcendent level. In order to make that connection, it has to communicate with me clearly through a shared language that is not spoken, but felt. It has to link itself as an extension of my very Being, and imbue in me sensations that define precisely what driving is all about. Every single thing the car does has to be a precise consequence of my own intensions and actions. Simply put, the car has to enable the possibility for there to be perfect harmony between it and me.
I appreciate that this definition for soul won’t ring true for everybody, and I encourage you all to share in the comments precisely what makes a car soulful from your perspective. For the purposes of this investigation however, I’ll be using the above definition as a guideline. But ultimately, we will need to elaborate upon that guideline in order to conclude appropriately.
It’s quite easy to adopt the viewpoint that our perception of soul is merely a reflection of what we look for in a car. More specifically, some people may feel a car is soulful when their subjective expectations of it correspond perfectly with the objective reality that the car presents. But this kind of congruity is usually the recipe for contentment - at the very best - rather than the inarticulable ecstasy that you feel when a car shows you its soul.
This aforementioned ecstasy is transmitted to you via each and every medium of communication you have with the car. The throttle response, the shiver of delight that shoots up your arm when you change gear (providing the car is gifted with a manual gearbox), the chassis balance and the way in which the steering relays to you precisely how the car is behaving - all of these things enable you to find and connect with the car’s soul. The more layers of technology that corrupt these points of communication, the more difficult it is to find and identify with the car’s soul. As a general rule, the most unfiltered driving experiences are the ones where soul announces itself most proudly.
In some ways though, by far the most influential factor in determining whether a car has a soul or not is the noise it makes - and this is where things start to look particularly grim for electric cars. When an engine makes a pleasant noise, what you hear is not just the sound of prehistoric creatures exploding - it’s music that travels from your ears, down your spinal cord, and into the most receptive part of your entire Being. Even if a car isn’t particularly communicative in all other mediums, if the noise it makes is epic enough, it forms the gateway to the car’s soul. And this is something that we will unavoidably miss when the world goes all electric.
The sound a car makes can have a profound impact upon the way you judge all of it’s remaining characteristics. Take the Porsche 718 Cayman as a prime example. In every single measure of greatness, it shows noticeable improvements over the 981 it replaces; however, the Turbocharged Flat-4 engine sounds like a kitchen appliance compared to the caressing howl you got from the old naturally aspirated Flat-6. This fact alone influences people to look down upon all of the other improvements Porsche made to the Cayman for the 718 generation - something which is testament to just how important sound is when searching for soul in a car.
It’s at this point that the most ardent social constructionists will be keen to point out that we’ve been conditioned by a capitalist machine to interpret the noises that some internal combustion engines make as pleasant, and that future generations will find the whooshes and whines of electric motors just as satisfactory as we find a V8 now. But regardless of how many of society’s artificial constructs you want to tear down, this theory falls flat when you consider the diverse character on offer with combustion engines.
Right now, you can find conventional performance cars with engines ranging from 3 to 16 cylinders. Some of them arrange their cylinders in a straight line, some in a V, and others in a W formation. Some of them use up to four turbochargers, some of them up to two superchargers, and occasionally we’re blessed with ones that go without any form of forced induction whatsoever. Displacements range between a single litre, and a monstrous 8 litres. This astonishingly diverse array of varying elements is precisely what contributes towards internal combustion cars developing their own distinct and unique characters. And character is something that a car must have in order to possess a soul.
In an electric car, none of the above character-forming traits can be applied. Instead, you have motors that give a certain amount of power, and batteries that give an ever diminishing amount of range when you’re not exploring the performance potential. As a result of this, the use of electric motors demotes the performance car to a singular accelerative device. And personally, I have never connected with a car’s soul purely based on the ferocity of its straight line speed.
Perhaps however, if an electric car has a soul, it could make it known down a twisty piece of enthusiast-pleasing road. This however links back to a previous point I made about how technology obfuscates the pathway that leads to a car’s soul. For with electric cars, makers have the freedom to implement systems internal combustion cars could never use - such as torque vectoring through the use of a motor in each wheel. This has the potential to eliminate such handling characteristics as understeer and oversteer in almost all scenarios. And while cornering cleanly in a conventional sports car could leave you feeling pleased with yourself, the delight you feel is a direct product of knowing that it was your effort rather than the car’s that resulted in the cornering style. When technology facilitates perfection, it leaves you feeling dissatisfied that it was the car’s actions and not your own that caused the aforementioned perfection.
When the technology that electricity enables replaces driver skill, there begins a disheartening domino effect. For your own actions to result in a clean corner execution, the car must communicate with you clearly. Through doing this, it informs you of its limitations, and also what you have to do in order to drive around them. If the technology inherent in electric cars eliminates these limitations, it will not only remove the need to drive around them, but also the level of communication required to feel that they’re there. It will be the automotive equivalent of trying to feel a limb you’ve had amputated.
This issue however runs quite a lot deeper than this. For if a car lacks the tactility to inform you of its handling imperfections in order for you to drive around them, it also lacks the tactility to inform you of how you can use its limitations for the objective of fun. If the foibles aren’t present, there is no need for the car to communicate their non-existence to you. If it did, all that would be conveyed is complete numbness. Add all of this together, and you come to the conclusion that a car’s foibles form a charm and character that enable it to be fun - and all of these elements are directly connected to soul.
So then, after all of this, the future of automotive soul most certainly does not look safe with the electric car. I started out by wondering whether soul was a feature fundamentally intrinsic to internal combustion, and the further down this brain-breaking rabbit hole I travel, the more I conclude that it is. All of the characteristics required for a car to have a soul are merely superfluous barriers in the perfection-seeking world of the electric car. And while electric cars are unquestionably capable of doing things that make us all gasp in wonderment, such amazement does not result in forming a soulful connection. So then, it is with a tight knot in the pit of my stomach that I must conclude that I personally do not believe electric cars are capable of having souls.
But what do you guys think? Do you believe that electric cars are soulful? If so, which ones? Let me know in the comments.