Could electric car interfaces be designed to promote less driving?

chart showing electric car charging as part of overall energy consumption photo
© Sense

I've always been a little skeptical about what's known as the Jevons paradox—the phenomenon by which gains in efficiency lead to increases in consumption. Yes, it's true that when it costs less to do something, you might do it a little more. But in the case of electric versus gas cars, in particular, I have a hard time believing that the immense gains in efficiency would be anywhere close to cancelled out by us driving more.

After all, if cost was the primary influence on automotive decision making, SUVs wouldn't be taking over the world.

Recently, however, I've been thinking about a rather different idea: Could electric cars offer an opportunity to encourage LESS driving, by reworking their driver interfaces? Here's my thinking:

Most of us currently fill up our gas tank every week, or every month, depending on how often we drive. Then we forget about it until it's time to fill up again. We're not given any meaningful feedback on consumption as we drive, aside from the fuel gauge slowly ticking down. In this sense, electric cars are currently even worse. We plug in overnight, but don't see the costs until we pay the monthly bill. And even then, they are lumped in with consumption from our other costs like fridges, air conditioning and radio toasters. So, while I'm skeptical about the strict definition of Jevons and electric cars—namely efficiency—I do think there's something there in the idea that costs get masked within overall electricity consumption.

But what if we could design our homes, or our cars, to make those costs visible?

As I've written before, I've been experimenting with a Sense home energy monitor and achieving real, significant cost savings. And while the device has yet to recognize either of our plug-in cars, I can still easily spot the spikes where either car started charging. (See around 4pm and 8pm in the chart above.) Seeing these spikes has undoubtedly played a role more than once in making me think twice about walking or driving the kids to school, or biking or busing downtown to a meeting.

What's interesting is that it's not even necessarily about the actual, specific cost. After all, if my monthly energy bill is one hundred and some dollars, any savings in terms of reducing car use are likely to be in the $10 to $20 range at most. But it's the spikes that captured my attention. They provide a visual feedback mechanism that's more sensory than it is informative. And it simply reminds me that what I'm doing is having an impact, both on the environment and on my energy bill.

What if every home had a system like the Sense energy monitor? Or what if we designed our cars to provide a visual, sensory nudge that there's a nontrivial amount of consumption going on? Of course, part of the challenge will be that programing a car to 'feel' less efficient, or more expensive, runs counter to a car company's interests. But maybe they could provide this as an option for those of us who care? Or perhaps as law makers get serious about reducing car use—not just switching fuel sources—there might be legislative requirements to start communicating impact. Heck, given that I know more than one person who has downloaded apps to make their phone harder—not easier—to use in an effort to curb smart phone addiction, I could see an opportunity for similar functions on a smart, electric car.

"Good morning. Do you really need to drive today?", says my car as I ease into the drivers' seat. (That wouldn't be annoying at all...)

Just musing out loud here. This is not an area I have much experience or expertise in. It might be a nonstarter. So please feel free to set me right in the comments. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Could electric car interfaces be designed to promote less driving?
Maybe we can reverse the Jevons paradox...

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