Automakers this year are rolling electrics, hybrids, and plug-in hybrids to the U.S. market, admittedly as part of an industry-wide effort to meet government fuel-efficiency mandates that will start to apply in four years.
Although these vehicles won't make or break a car company -- they represent only a sliver of the auto market -- automakers may have to spend time and money on educating consumers. That's because a lot of Americans don't really get what makes a hybrid different from a battery electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid. And what's a hybrid, anyway?
New research from marketing firm Synovate, based on a survey last fall of 1,898 new vehicle buyers and intenders, actually suggests that even though modern hybrids have been around since Toyota launched the first-generation Prius in the late 1990's (Prius is still the top-selling hybrid worldwide), consumer knowledge about hybrid power trains is so low that it could prove a significant barrier to sales.
Some of the more daunting results of the study are that few consumers know that hybrids have electric batteries and only two-thirds know that hybrids use both gasoline and batteries. And in spite of years of advertising to the contrary by Toyota -- and Honda, in particular, which devoted a campaign to the fact that you don't have to plug in a hybrid -- many people still think you do.
The firm says only a third of respondents know that hybrid gas/electric vehicles can run on the electric motor only. Unfortunately, the picture gets even cloudier now that there actually are hybrids that are meant to be plugged in and that can run for long distances solely on electric power. Things get even more confusing when one considers the Chevrolet Volt, which is sort of the opposite of a hybrid: an electric car with a gasoline motor that assists the main electric powerplant.
Synovate says that while many know that plug-in hybrids have a plug and need to be plugged in, most had no idea that these vehicles use gasoline. Fewer than half of all new vehicle buyers know that plug-in hybrids can run purely on electricity. There is also widespread confusion about charge times, operation and emissions with regard to battery-electric cars like Nissan Leaf that have no gasoline engine at all.
Stephen Popiel, SVP of Synovate Motoresearch, said in a release that education duties will have to be borne by the industry and government if the segment is to spark. "In the short term, dealers will have to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the workings of [plug-in hybrids] and [battery electric cars] to interested buyers," he says.
"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?"