Survey: Consumers Unsure About Hybrid Technology

Honda's HybridAbout three years ago, Honda had to run TV spots explaining that the hybrid version of the Honda Civic does not have to be plugged into the wall at night to recharge the batteries. Toyota did likewise when the company launched its Hybrid Synergy drive in the Prius. They needed to do this because consumers didn't get how hybrids work and what the differences are between them. 

Well, if market research firm Synovate is correct, they still don't.

The firm says that while U.S. consumers are more familiar with advanced propulsion systems versus a year ago, they are still in the woods when it comes to how they work and whether they are trustworthy, durable technologies.

The firm surveyed 4,084 vehicle owners and prospective buyers to gauge attitudes toward new propulsion and fuel technologies. Tim Englehart, VP of Synovate's auto research division, says that although hybrids have been around for a decade or so, many consumers still don't understand how they work.



"The Prius and Honda Insight have been out for almost ten years; but a lot of consumers may have just become familiar with it them in the last couple of years," says Englehart, who explains that when hybrids came out, most people bought them for environmental reasons. "Now it has shifted to economic reasons, so those who normally would not have been interested now are."

He adds that the growing variety of alternative-technology drive trains means that consumers will have to catch up. Indeed, with forthcoming plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt that can run purely on electricity or on gasoline or ethanol, pure-electric vehicles, mild hybrids, and various fuel-cell configurations like the new (very limited-volume) Honda FCX, consumers may need to get some graduate credits in electrical engineering to make a considered choice.

But according to Synovate's survey, purchase consideration of plug-in hybrids almost doubles when respondents learn what it actually is, while consideration for flex-fuel vehicles (which run on ethanol) drops significantly after respondents learn about their benefits and liabilities.

Consumers also consider Toyota and Honda the top two manufacturers in bringing these new technologies and alternatively fueled vehicles to market, with both above all other brands.

To buff its reputation in this area, GM has been running "Gas Friendly to Gas Free" ads touting its fuel efficiency for two years. Englehart says that effort is paying off--but slowly, at least based on survey respondents' impressions of GM as a maker of alternative powertrains.

"The message is getting out there, but the gap between them and Toyota is still significant," he says. Per Synovate, 30.1% respondents identify Toyota as a maker of hybrid cars. In the firm's 2005 study, 5.7% of consumers identified GM for making such vehicles. In 2007 the number was around 12.3%, and for Honda the number was 16.3% last year.

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