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Technology

Icons of Italian Automotive Style Struggle to Go Electric

SANT’AGATA BOLOGNESE, Italy — The boys spilling out of a grade school in an Italian village went silent as the Lamborghini approached, its throaty 12-cylinder engine trumpeting its presence. Then, as the wedge-shaped beast rumbled by the schoolyard, they broke into cheers, pumping their fists and leaping into the air.

It was a spontaneous expression of the emotion that the Italian sports car maker inspires and that motivates those who can afford it to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars, in some cases millions, to get one.

But Lamborghini, Ferrari and a handful of other companies that make so-called supercars — a loosely defined category of vehicles that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and offer race-car-level performance — face an existential threat. The auto industry is moving inexorably toward battery power, a trend that these carmakers cannot escape. They are now wrestling with how to design electric sports cars that will inspire the same passion and command the same prices.

Tesla has already challenged Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s claims of being at the cutting edge of automotive design. Tesla pioneered electric vehicles, and its Model S Plaid can accelerate to 60 miles per hour in just over two seconds, faster than any Ferrari or Lamborghini, according to testers at Motor Trend.

“For the supercar makers, the question is will they be able to also be super in leading the world in electrification?” said Karl-Thomas Neumann, a former chief executive of the German carmaker Opel who is on the board of OneD Battery Sciences, a California supplier of technology for electric cars.

“If you are just building a supercar and putting a Ferrari logo on it, that’s not enough,” Mr. Neumann said. And the company is “very late” to the electric car game, he added.

Ferrari has offered a plug-in hybrid, the Stradale, since 2019 but won’t unveil a fully electric car until 2025. The company, based in Maranello, Italy, elaborated on its plans in an event for investors this month, saying it will build electric motors and other key components itself, in keeping with its tradition of craftsmanship and exclusivity.

“An electric Ferrari will be a true Ferrari,” Benedetto Vigna, the chief executive, said in an interview ahead of the presentation.

Ferrari also said that, in line with tradition, it would borrow technology from its formidable racing team. But the company does not compete in Formula E, the answer to Formula 1 for electric cars. Mr. Vigna declined to say whether there are any plans to do so.

Lamborghini, which is owned by Volkswagen and based in the village of Sant’Agata Bolognese, will offer its first plug-in hybrid in 2023 and a fully electric car sometime in the second half of the decade.

The mystique of the Italian supercars is deeply intertwined with the sound and the power of internal combustion engines. The renowned Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan was thought to have once said a Ferrari 12-cylinder engine achieved “a harmony no maestro could play.”

Electric motors are inherently sotto voce.

“Sound is an important asset to these vehicles,” said Andy Palmer, a former chief executive of Aston Martin who is now the chief executive of Switch Mobility, a maker of electric buses. “Does the sports car as we know it continue to exist if you’re not able to differentiate based on sound?”

The question is of interest to more than just a wealthy few. Italian pride and prestige are at stake.

While much of the rest of the Italian auto industry has become nearly irrelevant — Fiat’s market share in Europe has fallen to just 4 percent — supercar devotees routinely shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for Ferraris and Lamborghinis and often wait a year for delivery. The most exclusive models have price tags in the millions.

The two brands represent Italy’s industrial prowess, which is often overshadowed by its political dysfunction.

Ferrari and Lamborghini are also very profitable. Ferrari, which is traded on the stock exchange but controlled by Italy’s powerful Agnelli family, reported a net profit of 240 million euros, or $250 million, in the first three months of 2022 on sales of $1.2 billion.

Lamborghini contributed €180 million in pretax profit to Volkswagen’s bottom line during the first quarter on sales of €592 million. Last year Ferrari sold 11,000 cars, while Lamborghini sold 8,300. The two companies’ double-digit returns on sales are unusually high for the auto industry, which has notoriously slim profit margins.

Change is apparent in the region near Bologna, rolling countryside known as the Motor Valley. Ferrari and Lamborghini are a half-hour drive apart.

Last year Ferrari broke with tradition when it named Mr. Vigna chief executive. Though he’s a car buff who, at age 14, sneaked away from home for several days to attend a Formula 1 race, Mr. Vigna had never worked at a car company. He was previously a high-ranking executive at STMicroelectronics, a maker of semiconductors. His appointment signaled the importance of electronics to Ferrari’s future.

“We needed a C.E.O. with a deep understanding of the technologies that are changing not only the auto industry but the wider world,” John Elkann, the Agnelli family scion and Ferrari chairman, told investors this month.

Mr. Vigna, whose customers at STM included Apple and Tesla, brings to Ferrari deep connections from the tech world. “If I need some contacts with a potential partner or supplier, it’s easy for me to reach the right level of people,” he said.

The shift to batteries presents Ferrari and Lamborghini with several challenges. One characteristic of supercars is their extremely low profile, which reduces wind resistance. The car’s roof is barely waist-high. The same silhouette is a challenge to achieve with batteries, which typically sit under the passenger compartment.

Another characteristic is exclusivity. Buyers may easily wait a year for delivery. The cars are collectors’ items that often increase in value with time. Vintage Ferraris have sold for more than $20 million.

But does a Ferrari still feel exclusive when a Tesla is faster? Mr. Vigna argued that a few hundredths of a second’s difference in 0-to-60 acceleration was not the be-all and end-all. He likened driving a Ferrari to riding a roller coaster. It’s not so much the speed as the sensation.

“Ferrari is experience,” he said.

Electric cars are known for their smooth acceleration and their silent ride. That’s not what buyers of a Lamborghini Aventador or Ferrari SF90 Spider pay upward of $500,000 for. They want a feeling of raw power.

A Lamborghini driver sits inches from the road in the low-slung cockpit, aware of every imperfection in the pavement. The massive engine is just behind the seats, thundering in the passengers’ ears. The steering is precise but stiff, demanding intense concentration. It’s a total sensory experience that makes a traffic circle in an Italian village feel like a tight curve at the Monaco Grand Prix.

“The car gives you the feeling that you are, as a driver, a hero,” said Rouven Mohr, the chief technology officer of Lamborghini. Recreating that feeling in an electric car, he said, “is our main task.”

Batteries offer some advantages to supercar designers. Electric cars don’t need long drive shafts and bulky transmissions. Electric motors are much smaller than internal combustion engines. The components can be arranged to optimize weight distribution and handling.

Each wheel can have its own electric motor and be programmed to operate at slightly different speeds to maximize handling around a curve. Lamborghini is looking at equipping cars with artificial intelligence that would learn a driver’s preferences and driving style, and adjust handling and performance accordingly.

“The car understands what you want,” Mr. Mohr said.

So far, the exclusive clientele for supercars is not clamoring for an electric car. “No one has offered them something where they say, ‘Oh, this is even cooler than my current combustion engine car,’” Mr. Mohr said.

Other companies are trying, though so far they are producing electric supercars in very small numbers. Rimac Automobili, a Croatian firm whose investors include Porsche, Hyundai and Goldman Sachs’s private-equity unit, has unveiled the Nevera, an electric sports car that the company claims can accelerate from 0 to 60 m.p.h. in less than two seconds.

Lotus Cars, a British manufacturer controlled by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group of China, sells an electric model, the Evija. That and the Nevera have price tags well above $2 million. Lotus, whose other models cost much less than Ferraris or Lamborghinis, has said it will sell only electric cars beginning in 2028. (Fun fact: Lotus supplied key components for Tesla’s first production model, the Roadster.)

Other close competitors are moving at about the same speed. In Britain, Aston Martin plans to offer its first all-electric vehicle in 2025. McLaren, also British, isn’t expected to offer a model powered solely by batteries until 2028.

Ferrari and Lamborghini are not planning to stop making cars with internal combustion engines. But they are under increasing pressure from regulators to cut fuel consumption, especially in Europe. A two-seat Lamborghini Aventador coupe gets an average of 11 miles to the gallon, or half the fuel economy of a full-size pickup truck, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. (Aficionados argue that most people drive their supercars only a few thousand miles a year, so fuel consumption is low.)

Wealthy younger buyers may not want to be seen in a car that is so extravagant.

“We are getting younger customers every day,” said Stephan Winkelmann, the chief executive of Lamborghini. They want performance, he said, but also “peace of mind.”

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