Historically, most technology innovations in automobiles start at the high end and gradually work their way down the lineup until they've become standard features of even the humblest of cars.

From automatic transmissions to disc brakes, turbochargers to fuel injection, high-end audio systems to touchscreens, the most expensive cars get the feature first.

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Which may suggest that battery-electric vehicles--whose batteries are indisputably expensive in their first decade--should have followed the same model.

Instead, Nissan launched its battery-electric Leaf as a compact five-door hatchback, as did GM its Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car. 

2015 Nissan Leaf

2015 Nissan Leaf

Both makers chose that size and body style--what the industry calls the "C-segment"--because it's globally the highest-volume part of the market.

And, to be fair, Toyota followed that same path with its undeniably successful Prius hybrid, which started as a subcompact sedan and then found market acceptance as a compact to mid-size hatchback.

But in a recent article in trade journal Ward's Auto, comments by executives at both Mercedes-Benz and Ford indicate that those makers plan to follow the high-end-first path for their next battery-electric vehicles.

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(Both makers sell a single battery-electric model in California and a few other markets, but neither car--the B-Class Electric Drive and Focus Electric, respectively--is a serious volume contender.)

In fact, Ward's notes, a Mercedes-Benz executive "tips his hat" to electric-car startup Tesla Motors for its contrarian approach: "Mitigate range anxiety by stuffing lots of batteries into the chassis of a beautiful car and charging a premium price."

2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive - First Drive, May 2014

2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive - First Drive, May 2014

That executive is Harald Kroeger, vice president for electrical, electronics, and electric drive systems at Mercedes--a man who presumably knows a thing or two about how to launch pricey vehicles.

“I think the first big step will be to have good [electric cars] in the upper segments," he says, noting that putting "super-expensive technology" into smaller cars likely won't attract the buyers with a lot of money who can afford a full-featured electric car.

There's some faint indication that Ford, too, may be planning to launch a serious battery-electric vehicle at the high end of its range. It could conceivably come as a prestige Lincoln model aimed directly at the Tesla Model S.

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The high-end path also offers a hedge against falling gasoline prices, since high-end buyers are not motivated by saving money on their weekly fuel bills.

Even longtime battery industry analyst electric-car skeptic Menahem Anderman of Advanced Auto Batteries tips his hat to Tesla, noting the accepted truths it had shattered in the two years the Model S has been on the market.

Summary of Tesla's achievements by Menahem Anderman, Advanced Automotive Batteries, Oct 2014

Summary of Tesla's achievements by Menahem Anderman, Advanced Automotive Batteries, Oct 2014

He suggests that most electric cars have been launched as a response to government mandates, rather than as vehicles intended to be truly desirable without relying on cost, environmental benefits, or other ancillary qualities beyond the car itself.

Even Bob Lutz, the man who green-lighted the Chevy Volt as GM's product chief and protected it during the company's 2009 bankruptcy, seems to have admitted as much.

In interviews at last year's Los Angeles Auto Show and elsewhere, he commented, "We electrified the wrong end of the business."

At the time, he was promoting VIA Motors' range-extended electric truck line, which led him to suggest that the vehicles using the most fuel should be the first to be electrified.

Again, high-end car buyers often aren't concerned about fuel costs--but if batteries cost a lot, a pricier vehicle is more able to absorb that cost than a small, cost-constrained one.

Which may mean that we'll see a slew of much nicer, longer-range electric cars coming out in the next five years that, essentially, follow the Tesla model.

In that regard, Tesla CEO Elon Musk deserves to take a bow. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

[hat tip: Anton Wahlman]


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