Publication Detail

Symbolism in California’s Early Market for Hybrid Electric Vehicles


Journal Article

Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (STEPS), Electric Vehicle Research Center

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Suggested Citation:
Heffner, Reid R., Kenneth S. Kurani, Thomas S. Turrentine (2008) Symbolism in California’s Early Market for Hybrid Electric Vehicles. Transportation Research Part D 12 (6), 396 - 413

This study explores the symbolic meanings being created, appropriated, and communicated by the owners of hybrid electric vehicles. As symbolic meanings are shown to be important to hybrid electric vehicle purchase and use, understanding the meanings, as well as their construction and communication, is essential for policy makers and others hoping to promote these new types of vehicles. Hybrid electric vehicles embody combinations of meanings that were previously unavailable from automobiles. Market observers who fail to recognize this struggle to explain why some people buy hybrid electric vehicles. They may characterize buyers as naive about calculating payback on fuel economy, or dismiss owners as image-seeking environmentalists. This research belies such simplistic explanations. Through the telling and analysis of buyers’ own stories, this study takes a robust approach to understanding the creation and spread of new symbolic meanings in the automotive market. Data were collected in ethnographic interviews with hybrid electric vehicle owners in the California, and analyzed using methods based on semiotic theory. In particular, the study explores how widely recognized social meanings (denotations) are connected to more personal meanings (connotations) and the effect that both types of meanings have on vehicle purchase and use.