Want Consumers to Buy Plug-in Hybrids?

February 2011

Help Them Understand the Benefits, UC Davis Researchers Say

Why would consumers buy plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and what kind of PHEV would they buy? These are the questions that researchers seek to answer in a multi-year project underway at the UC Davis Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center. Among the findings, two are fundamental. First, consumers don’t demand what they don’t know or can’t imagine—and they don’t know the benefits of all-electric driving made possible by some PHEV designs. Second, anyone who wants to promote PHEVs and their benefits to consumers needs to communicate in language consumers understand.

The second-year report of the PHEV Demonstration and Consumer Education, Outreach, and Market Research Program summarizes the findings from 67 households that drove a PHEV for four to six weeks between August 2008 and February 2010. The demonstration vehicles were Toyota Prius hybrids that had been converted to PHEVs.

An important task was to listen to households as they tried to figure out what a PHEV is. One key insight is that consumers have limited understanding of plug-in technologies and their benefits, explains ITS-Davis associate researcher Ken Kurani, who leads the project. “Vehicle, energy, and environmental experts have created jargon to describe the complexity and implications of PHEV designs,” Kurani explains.

In general, a PHEV can be powered in part by electricity, but can also run on gasoline only. Assuming the battery has been recharged, the PHEV first uses that electricity until the battery is depleted, then switches to use only gasoline. A further distinction can be made between two ways of using electricity. An “all-electric” design uses only electricity to power the car until it switches to use only gasoline; a “blended” design uses both electricity and gasoline then switches to gasoline only. The demonstration vehicles operate the second way.

“Our households are still trying to translate basic information,” says Kurani. “Consumers are unable to put together the total energy costs and savings. They don’t know what it means to add, say, 150 kWh to their household’s monthly electricity usage. It’s not the same as knowing a tank of gas costs $40 and lasts them five days.”

The findings also indicate participants value improved fuel economy while the battery is being depleted; but few are able to take the step to value all-electric driving. “For some, it is an inability to get past the idea that ‘all-electric’ means they might get stranded. For others, the fuel economy numbers they see driving the PHEV are a revelation. Their own car may get 17 mpg, and if they recharge the demonstration car, it may average 70 mpg for a day of their driving. That difference is so dramatic, they may not see sufficient reason to go to all-electric,” Kurani explains.

“We do want consumers to see that extra value. As we lower carbon emissions from electricity over the next several years, plug-in cars with more all-electric driving will better meet climate goals.”

Kurani believes such a transition can occur over a few vehicle generations. As more consumers experience PHEVs in the early market, they will begin to understand their benefits and will come to value and demand PHEVs with more all-electric range. Meanwhile, as the technology advances and costs come down, the market can grow.

Communication will play an important role in the transition. Neither vehicle experts’ jargon nor energy policymakers’ concerns with climate resonate with respondents. Therefore, industry, policymakers, and others who want consumers to embrace these vehicles must find a way to communicate their benefits. “They need to speak in language consumers understand—to help them conceptually, emotionally value all-electric operation,” adds Kurani.

Another component of this research project examines the role of social interactions and social networks on households’ assessments of PHEVs. UC Davis post-doctoral researcher Jonn Axsen explains, “Participants often consult others to form their interpretations about functional, symbolic, and societal benefits.” In contemporary society, he notes we live in multiple social networks, which have varying levels of potential influence.

The research provides a wealth of valuable information to guide policymakers, industry, and other stakeholders in building the market for PHEVs. For Kurani, the interdisciplinary approach of this research project provides multiple rewards.

“This ongoing project of translating between what experts say and what consumers think and feel, is essential to engaging households in the creation of personal and societal values around PHEVs.”