When I decided earlier this year to replace the car I'd been driving for a decade and a half — a Honda Civic Hybrid — I found myself navigating an automotive landscape that had changed dramatically since long-ago 2006. The biggest change, and the one I found most appealing, was the impressive array of electric vehicles, or EVs, on offer.
Once I started looking at EVs I couldn't stop thinking about their brand and model names and the lingo that goes with EV ownership. What do these names, words, and acronyms tell us about our changing relationship to cars? I'll reveal my own recent car-buying decision further down, but first let's take a spin around this new linguistic terrain.
To prepare, let's shift into reverse. Electric cars didn't appear out of nowhere in the 21st century; in fact, they predate gasoline-powered cars by several decades. The first crude battery-operated carriage was built in the 1830s by Scottish inventor Robert Anderson, and the first U.S. patent for a rechargeable car was granted in 1894 to a pair of Philadelphia inventors who called their vehicle the Electrobat.
Over the decades that followed, electric-vehicle naming rarely surpassed the modest creativity of "Electrobat" (from electric and battery, although "bat out of hell" may have played a subliminal role). Then as now, many companies just tacked a modifier onto an existing brand name or generic term: Detroit Electric, Studebaker Electric, Electric Vehicle Company. Later EV model names borrowed from the vocabulary of electric power or created electrified portmanteaus: the Kilowatt (built in 1959 by the Henney company of Illinois), the Amitron (built by AMC and later renamed the Electron), Chevrolet's Electrovair and Electrovette (echoing the Chevy Corvair and Corvette).
The big breakthrough, of course, was Tesla. Now inextricably linked to CEO Elon Musk, Tesla Motors was founded in 2003 by Marc Tarpenning and Martin Eberhard, who named the company after the Serbian-American electrical engineer inventor Nikola Tesla (1856–1943), a pioneer of alternating-current technology. Many other things had been named in Tesla's honor, including the Tesla coil, the Tesla unit of measurement, and the inventor's own company, founded in 1895; but naming a California-based car company after a long-dead eccentric genius was a quirky choice. So too were Tesla's model names, introduced after Musk made himself CEO in 2008: S, 3, X, and Y. (Get it?) The puckish Musk turned to the spoofy 1987 movie Spaceballs to name the Tesla driving modes: "Ludicrous" and "Plaid."
And since one Tesla-tribute alternative-fuel company apparently isn't enough, there's also a Nikola Motor Company, founded in 2014 and based in Arizona. Nikola has produced several zero-emission concept vehicles with names like One, Two, Tre, and Reckless.
Here's a short guide to some other notable EV names and terms:
EV: electric vehicle. Sometimes called a BEV (battery-electric vehicle).
ICE: internal combustion engine. Also a verb, as in "I got ICEd" — robbed of a public EV-charging space by a gas-powered car.
NEV: neighborhood electric vehicle, a car that resembles a golf cart but can be driven on public roads at speeds under 35 miles per hour.
PHEV: plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, which has a rechargeable battery for short drives and a small gasoline/petrol tank to extend its range.
ZEV: zero-emissions vehicle, a category that includes pure electric and hydrogen-fuel vehicles.
In 2010, at the dawn of the new EV era, Finlo Rohrer observed in the BBC News Magazine that "the task for the motor manufacturers is not just selling their own car, but tacitly selling the whole concept to a so-far ambivalent public." As a result, many EV names "hammer home the electric-ness of the car" (think of those Electrons and Electrovairs), whereas internal-combustion cars never emphasize their petroleum-ness. As Rohrer put it: "Can you imagine purchasing a Honda Petrolia or a Mercedes Dieselium?"
Things have changed a little in the intervening decade. EV names now tend to fall into these categories:
Just say E: Carmakers hope you'll understand that the E in Mustang's Mach-E or Audi's e-Tron — both sport utility vehicles — stands for "electric powered" and not for "extra" or (perish the thought!) "emissions."
Or maybe I. Apple made the ninth letter of the alphabet synonymous with "must-have technology." EV brands like the Nissan Ioniq (which also nods to ionization, or electrical charge), the Volkswagen ID.4, the BMW i.3, the Jaguar i-PACE, and the Peugeot iOn (there's that ion again!) hope you'll make the association again.
Pure as the driven. Lucid Motors, based in the Bay Area, makes a luxury EV called the Air; company and model names suggest cleanness and transparency. So does the name of Honda's plug-in hybrid, the Clarity — the model I ended up buying. Lyriq, Cadillac's new entry into the luxury EV market, has a sweetly poetic ring. And the Nissan Leaf, on the market since 2010, is metaphorically "green." (Nissan insists that LEAF is an acronym for Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable, Family car.)
By the hammer of Thor! Ford's recently announced Lightning truck and the Chevrolet Bolt remind us where electricity comes from.
Don't forget to — Volvo's Recharge SUV is a command disguised as a model name.
Outliers. Southern California–based Rivian, which makes trucks, vans, and "adventure vehicles," takes its name from a rearrangement of "Indian River," near where Florida-born company founder R.J. Scaringe grew up. The new Zeekr electric "shooting brake," from China-based global powerhouse Geely (which also owns Volvo), is a blend of Z for "Generation Z" and &"geek," according to the manufacturer. The similar-sounding Chinese name, Ji Ke, translates to "can immediately do (something)."
Charge it, please
You'll have to charge your EV or PHEV somewhere, and there's branding here as well. There are charging-station networks called Greenlots, EVgo, Electrify America, Blink, and ChargePoint, but my favorite name is CHAdeMO. It was proposed in 2010 by an association of Japanese automakers, and the official English-language story is that it's an abbreviation of "CHArge de MOve." It makes more sense when you know the Japanese source: Ocha demo ikagadesu ka, or "How about a cup of tea?" Translation: You'll charge your car in just the amount of time it takes to patiently brew a cup of tea — about half an hour.