The aerospace giant Rolls-Royce Holdings seems to be on a firm path toward net-zero, but it’s been a different story for another company, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, the automaker known as the drive of choice for the U.K’s royal family, super-successful entrepreneurs and other folks with money to burn. Rolls-Royce Motor Cars has long resisted electric vehicle (EV) technology, but it finally appears ready to give zero-emission mobility yet another turn at the wheel.
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars came into being in 2005, after BMW beat Volvo and other contenders for the rights to make cars under the ultra-exclusive luxury brand with a global reputation for satisfying the most exacting tastes.
The battle for the Rolls-Royce brand actually began in earnest in 1998, just around the time GM was struggling (and failing) to find a market for its groundbreaking EV-1 electric car. Among other factors, back in the 1990s EV batteries were considerably less than perfect, with long charging times, high costs and low range being the main obstacles. GM launched the car in 1996 and stopped producing it in 1999.
The EV-1 experience may have prompted higher-ups at Rolls-Royce to ignore newfangled electric drive technology and stick with tradition. After all, if EV technology was less than perfect, why would Rolls-Royce customers be interested in it?
The company did test the waters in 2011 when it introduced an all-electric version of the Phantom, at a car show. However, it disavowed any intention to put the vehicle into production, citing the inconvenience of long charging times as one factor.
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars also set the Internet on fire in 2017, when it built and donated a single child-sized electric car to a U.K. hospital. In an interesting twist, the tiny car was intended to be a therapeutic device, helping to reduce pre-operative stress by enabling children to drive themselves through the corridors. Try that with a gas engine!
On the flip side, at least one automotive entrepreneur took a different lesson away from the EV-1 debacle. That was, of course, Elon Musk, who introduced his first all-electric car in 2008 through the Tesla Motors startup he co-founded. Rather than producing an affordable EV for the masses, Tesla launched its first model, the Roadster, as an expensive, exclusive sports car that fit the bill for auto enthusiasts who value cutting edge technology and innovation. It cost more than $100,000 and the first run of 500 vehicles sold quickly.
Not to lionize Musk himself — after all, his performance on various measures of corporate responsibility ranges from mixed to dismal — but the focus on innovation and performance helped to lift all EV boats. In 2010 Tesla received a large Energy Department grant aimed at producing affordable EVs at scale, based on his success with the Roadster. That key endorsement from government policy makers provided U.S. automakers with key federal-level support to adopt EV technology.
Since 2010, the cost of EV batteries has dropped like a stone and the technology has improved significantly. Along with an ever-increasing gaggle of other EV startups, legacy automakers in the U.S. and elsewhere have also begun to formulate plans for an all-electric future. That includes EVs equipped with fuel cells, which produce electricity from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen.
Also included in the all-electric mix are luxury brand names like Jaguar. While not nearly as exclusive as Rolls-Royce, the Jaguar name leans on a reputation for quality and performance, at a cost.
By 2020, BMW critics were loudly questioning the company’s failure to develop a soup-to-nuts, dedicated electrification strategy. Some were eager to see BMW agree to spin off Rolls-Royce, in order to focus more energy on electrification for the mass market. They also argue that the spinoff would enable Rolls-Royce to reaffirm its title to ultra-exclusivity, citing the successful example of Ferrari.
It appears that BMW is determined to have it both ways. In recent weeks, Rolls-Royce launched its Coachbuild service, which ups the ante on automotive perfectionism by offering “an extraordinary design collaboration between patron and artisan.”
In the meantime, Rolls-Royce’s tease of the all-electric Phantom back in 2017 was not just a tease, after all.
At the time, Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös confirmed that hybrid electric cars would not roll off the company’s assembly lines — ever. However, that comment was just a precursor to the main thrust of his main point. Müller-Ötvös explained that 100 percent electrification was the wave of the future, meaning several years away. In 2017, he explained, the technology was yet not up to Rolls Royce’s exacting standards.
Apparently, much has changed in the past four years — including a growing number of countries and local governments that plan to restrict the sale or use of conventional gas-powered cars. Earlier this year, Rolls-Royce confirmed it is working on an all-electric version of its Shadow line, reportedly to be called “Silent Shadow.”
In a recent interview with Bloomberg Television, Müller-Ötvös described how zero-emission electric technology complements the company’s brand identity.
"Electrification fits perfect with Rolls-Royce -- it's torquey, it's super-silent," he told Bloomberg. "We are not known for roaring loud engines and exhaust noises whatsoever, and that is a big benefit.”
The announcement of an all-electric Rolls-Royce is a significant one because it helps to cement zero-emission technology in the popular imagination as a mature form of automotive engineering, one that is worthy of attention from firms with a reputation for delivering the ultimate automotive experience.
On the other hand, one electric car model may not seem like a big deal. It’s not, at least in terms of raw numbers. The iconic Silver Shadow, for example, is known as Rolls-Royce’s top selling passenger car, and it produced a total of only 38,000 units during its 11-year run from 1955 to 1966.
In contrast, Tesla’s all-electric Model S has sold more than 250,000 units since its introduction in 2012, and other automakers plan to introduce millions of their own zero-emission vehicles in the near future.
However, Coachbuild could be the secret weapon up Rolls-Royce’s sleeve.
Given the collaborative identity of Coachbuild, it is only a matter of time before someone with deep pockets and a passion for electric cars takes advantage of the new service.
Like the Roadster before it, the new Rolls-Royce all-electric Shadow could be the rising tide that lifts all boats even higher in the EV market of the future.
Image credit: Leon Seibert/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.