The electric vehicle is ready. Are you?

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Last week, a New York Times reporter test drove a Tesla from New York to Boston, using high voltage charging stations in the corridor. His review famously resulted in a picture of the Tesla S on a flat bed truck after depleting its battery on the last 200 mile leg of the trip.  The car ultimately came out clean; the problems were the result of poor judgement on the part of the reporter. But the image is a poster child for “range anxiety” – the fear that a pure EV will run out of charge far from a charging station.

Axsen prefers to view range anxiety as “temporary range misunderstanding with driver adaptation.” He’s never spoken to an electric car owner who actually experienced anxiety. His research found that people who were interested in the vehicle were willing to adapt to its limits – mostly because their imagined range was quite different from their actual range. His study occurred in California where people wanted the ability to drive to San Francisco but rarely if ever did so. When they enjoyed their driving experience, the perception of their needs changed.

What do consumers really want?

The answer to this question is obscured by a market that is unfamiliar with electric vehicles: more than 50% of the people Axsen interviewed thought that a regular Toyota Prius could plug in and the vast majority had never experienced electric drive. People don’t fully understand the products and the experience they offer because they are new. Axsen sees this as a huge opportunity: preferences are not yet set in stone.

Axsen found most people (56-67% depending on price in one survey) are much more attracted to the plug in hybrid electric vehicles than to the pure electric vehicles. They cost less at the outset and provided good fuel economy. Few people were ready for pure EVs. 

Car as symbol

People viewed drivers of pure EVs as intelligent, responsible, supportive of the environment and, to a lesser degree, as powerful. EVs had no effect on in associations with attractiveness, masculinity, femininity, sporty-ness or successfulness. 

People aren’t motivated by pay back analysis and rational economic decisions. They buy cars for both functional (what it does for you) and symbolic reasons (what it represents). Functionally, people were motivated by cost and environmental impacts in a general sense. They saw range, recharging and cost as disincentives.  EVs didn’t have a lot of symbolism yet although a few people saw them as fun and sporty.

Axsen’s PhD was on how social interactions shape these ideas. He identified three processes: 1) conversations in which people share information (least influential); 2) conversations in which people negotiate the controversies (more influential); and 3) the way people relate EVs to self identity. The third process is least frequent but most influential.

People can see a plug-in vehicle can even be a trial of a new lifestyle, a way to try on “green.” These people are likely to consider organic food and recycling at around the same time. Such shifts in identity most often occur during times of major transition: getting married, divorced, retired, having children or changing jobs.

Climate policy direction

Axsen doesn’t think electric vehicle adoption will happen without policy incentives that give long term signals to manufacturers and consumers that say: “this is where we are going, so start moving in that direction. “ He advocates “technology neutral” policies such as:

  • putting a price on carbon
  • zero emissions standards for vehicles and electricity, and
  • low carbon fuel standards

On the other hand, if we decide EVs are a good idea, we would need some EV-centric policies like vehicle subsidies, building codes that require charging stations, work place or public chargers and time of use rates for utilities.

With supportive policies, technical knowledge could result in cost decrease, improved performance,  clean electricity and more charging capability. Behavioural knowledge could result in increased exposure to EVs, increased demand and new social norms.

A bought in crowd

About two thirds of the fifty people in the audience owned a hybrid or electric vehicle. The person next to me, green car blogger Mathew Klippenstein[v], informed me that together we represented a third of the plug in Prius drivers in B.C. – there are only six. According to a spreadsheet he sent me, there are 155 Chevy Volts and 84 Nissan Leafs.

I’m really pleased with our plug in Prius. Our primary car use these days is driving our son across town to school, just within the 20 km electric range. We travel farther than the range once or twice a month, so the gas engine is useful. I find the less I use gas, the more I dislike it. The one time I filled up our Prius, I was keenly aware that the fuel might be from the tar sands and every uptick of the price display increased my financial support. In contrast, I take a suprising amount of pleasure in plugging the car in after use. 

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