For decades people have dreamed that electric cars might replace cars powered by gasoline engines. The hype around new electric cars entering the marketplace alongside federal subsidies for them has fueled the excitement in recent years.

But electric cars have serious limitations compared to their gasoline-powered counterparts. They can’t go as far or as fast. Supporters simply say investing more in the technology—batteries in particular—will solve this problem.

From our vantage point, electric engines represent a disruptive innovation relative to gasoline-powered engines. Using the theory of disruptive innovation, we can predict with some certainty that those manufacturers trying to pioneer electric cars to compete directly with gasoline-powered ones in the mainstream and high end of the market are fighting an uphill battle for market share that they can’t win. And framing the problem as a technology one—if only we invest more money in improving the batteries—rather than a business model one is typically a mistake.

Clayton Christensen has long hypothesized that the best place to launch pure electric vehicles will be in places of nonconsumption where their limitations are valued—such as in senior citizen communities or as a product for teenagers whose parents don’t want them driving fast or far.

Although you can go to many senior citizen communities today and see seniors zipping around in electric golf carts, the second scenario has always struck many as a funny idea, and perhaps not plausible.

Yet an early form of electric cars for teenagers seems to be taking off in at least one community.

According to an article in February in United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine—some of the best finds about disruptions happen to be in airline magazines incidentally—in Peachtree City, a suburb 40 minutes south of Atlanta, “it’s legal for teens with learners’ permits to drive golf carts unsupervised.”

The result? At McIntosh High, students drive literally hundreds of golf carts to school. The story quotes one student as saying there is a golf cart crash once a day, but it’s significantly better than teenagers crashing real cars, as the carts have a maximum speed limit of 19 miles per hour. And there is infrastructure galore for the thousands of carts in the town: 90 miles worth of paths patrolled by police and golf cart parking spaces near virtually all the stores in town.

From teenagers’ perspective, having a golf cart is better than their alternative—nothing at all or riding the bus—and it certainly is a welcome relief to parents who can’t mind their children getting driving practice with a slower, less risky machine.

There is some evidence that the electric carts may also be starting to improve—or go up-market—as all disruptions do. According to the article, some of the carts are now “kitted out with giant speakers, sliding doors and even undercarriage lights that change colors.”

Disruptions tend to take a long time—many decades often—until their impact is felt. So keep your eyes on this one and avoid the whiplash.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.