Will consumers stay away from electric vehicles?

New research from global market research firm Synovate suggests that consumer knowledge about hybrid power trains is so low that it could prove a significant barrier to sales. Even though electric powertrains, especially Hybrids, have been available for 10 years, new vehicle buyers remain woefully ignorant about even the basics.

"Few among those surveyed know that Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) contain electric batteries, and only two-thirds know that HEVs use both gasoline and batteries. Many think that HEVs need to be plugged in. Only one-third of people surveyed know that HEVs can run on the electric motor only. Naturally, then, when the industry asserts that emissions are lower with hybrid vehicles, the claim is difficult for many people to understand," Synovate says.

When it comes to Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) the situation is even worse. While many know that PHEVs have a plug and need to be plugged in, most survey respondents did not think that PHEVs used gasoline, either as a source or in conjunction with an electric motor. Equally concerning is the fact that less than half of all new vehicle buyers know that PHEVs can run in all electric mode.

Knowledge of how Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) work is somewhat higher, but there is still widespread confusion about charge times, operation and emissions.

As Stephen Popiel, senior vice president of Synovate Motoresearch, says, "This low level of understanding about the way in which electric powertrain vehicles work will have profound consequences for vehicle sales. In the short term, dealers will have to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the workings of PHEVs and BEVs to interested buyers. We have to wonder if consumers will become disillusioned when they understand the actual requirements of electric vehicles. Will the person who goes to their Chevy dealer to buy a Volt, or their Nissan dealer to buy a Leaf, still buy the vehicle once they discover the need for plugs and 220 volt outlets? And, if they become discouraged with the electric option, will they stay and buy a different Chevy or Nissan vehicle? Or simply leave in confusion?"

The bigger question, according to Popiel, is, "Whose job is it to educate consumers about these powertrains?" First mover advantage can bring glory but also the need to educate consumers. Is it in the best interest of Nissan to educate the market about electric vehicles?

The answer, according to Popiel is both yes and no. "Yes, they must to help build their sales. But also no, as they will simply gives other OEMs a long set of coat-tails to ride on."

Clearly, there is a role for government to play, beyond just legislating quotas. "There needs to be a significant consumer education process to explain why we must move from a petroleum-based powertrain to an electric based powertrain," said Popiel. "The awareness campaign would have to address questions of environmental protection and national security, i.e. dependence on foreign oil leaves our society vulnerable to outside disruptions."

And, of course, consumers need to understand what the new powertrain vehicles will mean to their driving behaviors and vehicle maintenance habits. Long-term success of the electrification of the fleet will only come about with a better-educated consumer. According to Popiel, "The C and D grades consumers earned in our research simply aren’t good enough to support the profound societal shift the industry will need to deliver federally-mandated quotas."