- BJ Birtwell travels the country teaching average consumers about electric vehicles.
- He says first-time EV buyers have a lot of questions about range, the battery, and more.
- Here’s what he says new electric car buyers get wrong, as told to the reporter Alexa St. John.
BJ Birtwell is a self-proclaimed “car guy” and founder of Electrify Expo, an outdoor festival that brings electrification to everyday consumers with the help of automakers, charging companies, and other industry stakeholders. The 48-year-old, based in Austin, Texas, travels the country teaching prospective buyers about the nuances behind — and the joys of — driving an EV.
Before starting the expo in 2021, Birtwell worked in various roles in the event planning and auto industries, including Chrysler. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I’ve been in the auto industry for about 25 years and have been a car guy all my life. I ran a marketing division at Chrysler for several years and then left to produce large concerts and festivals at a multicultural events company. I created my own agency 13 years ago.
It was a glaring realization when we looked at the EV space that there wasn’t anything like Electrify Expo.
People come to EVs for a variety of different reasons
Some people primarily want to reduce their carbon footprint. Others are just early adopters of technology. For me, I was a car guy. If you’re a car person and if you know anything about EVs, you know that there’s this polarity between those two audiences in some respects.
I always looked at EVs like, “Hey, if I can’t hear it, I can’t feel it. And if I can’t feel it, then this car doesn’t have a soul.” That’s really how I felt about EVs until I actually drove one. That light bulb moment happened for me, and at that point it was like, “Okay, people have to experience this technology in order to get it.”
I first drove a Tesla in 2016
When you’re a car guy or a car gal, your experience with a car is much more than utility. It’s absolutely part of your identity, and it’s something that you look forward to driving. The idea of removing an element, like sound, from the driving experience is very foreign and maybe even a little like the antithesis of the driving experience — until you get behind the wheel of one and you realize that the performance of these EVs is so much fun.
At Electrify Expo, we are the closest you can get to the point of purchase for these attendees that are shopping for EVs. They’re coming to our festival to try stuff before they buy.
We created the Electrify Expo to answer questions
Giving them that experience allows them to close the loop on all the questions that they had. These are first-time EV shoppers, not the enthusiasts — people who are experiencing electric vehicles or electric bikes or electric scooters for the very first time.
It went from early adopters to people who were really conscious about reducing their carbon footprint and emissions to now this is being a mainstream consumer who’s sensing “Hey, if I buy an internal combustion engine car today, in three or four years, when I try to sell that car, what’s the demand going to be for an ICE car then?”
A lot of their questions can only be answered with an experience
There are true challenges, and then there are misconceptions. We’re in an industry that’s brand new. I don’t know why people expect this industry to be so developed when technology is still being introduced. That’s changing: how fast batteries charge, how long vehicles go. Challenges that are being addressed by the government with subsidies are things like EV infrastructure. If you can’t charge at home, where can I charge?
There are certain places where there still needs to be more investment and more charging stations rolled out. That’s happening now and it’s going to happen over the next several years.
Range is a misconception
These cars have gotten so much better in terms of range. When you own an electric vehicle, you realize that yes, it might be great to have a 450-mile range, but 99% of the time, I really just need to get around today because if I have charging at home, I can come back at home and I can charge it up every night. They also ask about the time to charge. What does Level 2 charging mean?
A lot of these questions about charge time and range are starting to get softer. The question of cost has not been a big issue at our festivals.
A lot has happened in the last two or three years with more models being introduced, and we are getting so much closer to price parity with internal combustion engine cars. We’re really approaching that now. I don’t hear a lot about price anymore.
No different from shopping for a gas-powered car
They want to experience the thrill of an electric vehicle. They’re looking at fit and finish, they’re looking at price. These are the things that are the most important to consumers right now. We still have the questions about range. We still have questions about charging time.
We still have to have the answers, like locations of where to charge. But I feel like those questions will become less over the next couple of years as we solve these problems. We’re getting there a lot faster than people expect.
But this is a huge shift and it’s going to take more than simply the auto manufacturers to educate. It’s going to take more than the charging brands to educate. It’s really going to take a more steeping strategy to educate people on some of these issues that are not advancing in the industry as fast as some would want.
But as far as I’m concerned, what we see is a really strong uptick in EV curiosity and EV interest and it’s only increasing.
You’re going to have EV holdouts. They have their own lifestyle and the way that they look at cars and how they should be powered. But that’s certainly not going to be a large percentage of the American public over the next three or four years.
I think as more information gets out, as more people experience these vehicles, you get these questions answered, and when you get these questions answered, you close the loop and you adopt this new technology.