Automakers Struggle With Consumer Ignorance

Automakers are investing billions of dollars in alternative-energy vehicles. But if a recent poll is any indication, the efforts are wasted on consumers who, for the most part, remain clueless.

The engineers may disagree, but a portion of the tech money should be quickly redirected to marketing departments so consumers can be brought up to speed. 

A recent Harris Poll of 1,052 U.S. residents shows most consumers are confused by the capabilities of various electrically powered vehicles on the market. 

They include fully battery-electric vehicles such as the Tesla Model S, hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) such as the Chevrolet Volt and Ford Fusion Energi.

Those polled estimated plug-ins can travel 260 miles – less than half the actual range of most plug-in hybrids on the market. About 76% of those surveyed said they were “not at all sure” how far a plug-in hybrid car, which runs on both electric power and gasoline, could drive on a single refueling and recharging.

Harris also found 67% of those surveyed didn’t know anyone who owned an electric car, hybrid or PHEV. The poll found more affluent consumers and city dwellers were more familiar with electric and hybrid vehicles.

The research was commissioned by Ford Motor Co. The automaker is investing $4.5 billion over the next several years to expand its lineup of all-electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Although Ford says it was the top seller of plug-ins in 2015 and is leading the segment this year with PHEV sales up 58%, consumer confusion and low fuel prices have dampened sales of electric vehicles in general, and not just for Ford, according to

“There’s a very limited understanding, even among people who are relatively sophisticated about vehicles, about what a plug-in hybrid really is,” says Chris Hosford, a spokesman for Hyundai Motor America, tells Ward’s. “Time and again we see people say, ‘I don’t want a plug-in hybrid, I don’t want to have to run my car on batteries all the time.’ They clearly miss the point.” 

Hyundai executives believe that if they can explain PHEVs to people they will find the technology preferable to conventional hybrids. In fact, the Sonata PHEV is priced so salespeople can try to move Sonata hybrid intenders into the PHEV. Including government incentives, the Sonata PHEV is slightly less expensive than the HEV version, Hosford tells Ward’s.

Ford plans to step up efforts to sell PHEVs such as the Fusion Energi by staging events to allow customers to drive them, and creating new digital marketing to explain what the technology can do, according to Reuters.

These efforts are a step in the right direction. If marketing doesn’t help consumer intelligence catch up with the technology, the technology efforts are all but wasted. It’s up to the automakers to see that. 

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