Inside the Mindset of Green Car Shoppers, Owners, and Stakeholders

There are a few things that have been learned by automaker and dealer management in the past year and a half at Nissan, GM, Ford, and BMW through marketing plug-ins to early adopters. It was experienced years earlier by Tesla and through hybrid electric vehicles sold mainly by Toyota and Honda. When you interview executives and other green vehicle stakeholders at industry conferences, they share lessons learned from surveys, sales experiences, marketing campaigns, infrastructure development – and from their own experiences with the cars. There is no one facet that defines who will buy the one millionth electric vehicle, or who might be purchasing fuel cell vehicles and other alternative fuel vehicles.

Here’s what I see as defining categories of attitudes and beliefs that have, and will, influence the car shopping and purchasing experience, along with those held by key stakeholders making all of this happen. Some people fall into more than one category, and some vehemently disagree with opinions coming from other groups.

Oil Imports and Energy Security:  This is where gasoline and diesel prices come to play. Many consumers are looking skeptically at hybrids and EVs and their higher sticker prices, and think fuel prices will have to get steep before these cars become competitive. Beneath that attitude and further into the conversation, there will sometimes be ominous perspectives expressed connected to Sept. 11, 2001, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the power of OPEC nations to influence oil prices, and the huge impact that volatile oil prices have on economic conditions. Most recently, this ties into the gasoline price spike during the summer of 2008, which is considered a triggering force in the economic free fall unleashed in September 2008. Oil imports is the shorthand for these troubling issues today and is as close as liberals and conservatives come together in Washington when considering environmental and energy issues. It is an effective common ground that’s been utilized for years. The Dept. of Energy’s Clean Cities program is based on reduction of petroleum consumption, and reducing oil imports is commonly mentioned by its coalitions.

Air Pollution and Health Hazards:  Studies done in certain markets, especially Southern California, find that many consumers are very much concerned about the harmful effects of breathing tailpipe emissions. Carbon dioxide emissions are sometimes included in analyses of smog, but can also be separately factored in as greenhouse gases (see “Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions” below). Air pollution studies and government regulations have tended to focus more on nitrogen oxides (NOx), hydrocarbons, and particulate matter. Air pollution has been a driving force for regulations in California and other states since the mid-1970s (when OPEC oil embargoes and rising gasoline prices were part of it, too). Catalytic converters played an important part in accomplishing reduction goals, along with requiring routine smog checks in vehicle licensing. More recently, reports have been released showcasing health issues as the most important reason to reduce air pollution – asthma and respiratory disease are commonly mentioned. Passenger vehicles are much cleaner than they were in the 1970s, but there are a lot more of them on the roads today.

Climate Change and Greenhouse Gas Emissions:  A year ago, Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., opened a new section  — “Artic & Antarctic: Our Polar Regions in Peril,” which addresses the impact of global warming on the north and south poles as ice melts and sea levels rise. Families walk through with kids, teachers with students, and they view videos and photos illustrating the devastating impact on wildlife. Nearly all scientists would agree with the assessments and assumptions at the Aquarium – polar caps are melting and weather disasters are increasing. About half the world’s population lives within a few miles of coastlines, which are particularly vulnerable and susceptible to the direct impact of global warming. A Nissan Leaf commercial with a Leaf owner hugging a polar bear in his driveway touched on this theme. There’s a real clash in America over the issue of climate change. It’s seen by many conservatives as inaccurate, inflated science reporting, or climate conditions that human beings didn’t cause or can’t control. Even with opposition, it has become commonplace now in government regulations and corporate sustainability policies, with the inclusion of greenhouse gas emissions as a standard. The United Nations has not resolved the challenge of setting viable climate change global standards since the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, and it fizzled in the US Congress about two years ago. But it is still there in the background, and it does affect policies, including the federal government’s mandate that 54.5 mpg be the CAFÉ standard by 2025, with greenhouse gases (GHG) in the formula. Fleets and OEMs, including heavy duty natural gas truck makers, refer to GHG levels as a typical specification these days.

Advanced Technologies and Cool Stuff:  Engineers and medical professionals that I know are fascinated with the latest in technologies – bioscience, aeronautics, satellite communications, and battery storage systems, to name a few. One of them mentioned to me that the city of Fountain Valley, Calif., in conjunction with UC Irvine’s National Fuel Research Center, last year unveiled a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle fueling station, where an endless stream of human waste is being transformed into transportation fuel. These types of thinkers are thrilled to see breakthrough technology advancements, and the ability to gain multiple applications out of one element. Being passionate about humanity’s potential for radical technology advancements is a common factor, and it can also tie into American pride for some people (i.e., we did beat the Russians to the moon and we do pretty good at the Olympics.) Aside from that, there’s the fascination with new, cool technology that drives consumer purchase decisions, especially for males. This facet was a big part of the early adopters for the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt – the type of person who might be among the very first to own the next version of the iPad, and can explain to you which digital cameras you should consider buying, and why you wasted your money with the one you bought.

Typical Car Shoppers:  Getting the best deal on a car is critical for most people, and it’s the main reason many will keep their car for seven to 10 years – they don’t want to spend too much income on transportation. These are people most vulnerable to fuel prices rising, and they tend to resist car shopping. They don’t want to get hustled while shopping at dealerships. There is a lot of resistance here to buying that higher priced hybrid or EV, and fuel cell vehicles will be facing it, too. On the fleet side, there’s analysis of when that higher-priced natural gas or other alternative fuel vehicle will meet up with an internal combustion engine vehicle, and then reduce lifecycle costs. Gasoline prices will need to continue etching up ($5 a gallon?), and MSRPs, lifecycle costs, and dependability will have to be there. This is where education comes to play – effectively answering commonly asked questions on pricing, incentives, loans, home charging installation, range anxiety, public stations, alternative fuel stations, car service and repair, safety, resale value, etc. We’re talking years from now for this to come together for the average car shopper.  Beyond that, there are unspoken reasons why someone will buy a car. As was said during the EVS26 webinar on May 9, it will take moving beyond the practical reasons why someone should buy an EV into the emotional experience for this to succeed.

Keeping Up with the Joneses and the Car Guys:  EVs, hybrids, and alt-fuel vehicles are new technologies that require lots of research and experience before that sizable investment decision can be confidently made. There’s also the invisible, subliminal factor that advertising icons have played upon since mass media started, and is usually part of the messaging – how this product will alleviate your deep anxieties and satisfy yearnings. The challenge for automakers, dealers, and other key stakeholders, is clarifying who the real influential players are, and getting them to buy into their vehicles. To get a feel for this part of the process, start by asking yourself a few questions. Why did you buy the car you’re driving now? Do you have a friend, co-worker, or relative who’s a “car guy,” who reads about and test drives a lot of them, emphasizing performance, dependability, and coolness? Do you read Consumer Reports or car reviews because this person does so? What if that person drove a Chevy Volt to your party and wowed guests? Who do you consult with when you buy a car, or a new and pricey technology – home entertainment system, smart phone, digital camera, motorcycle, RV, cruise boat, etc.? This is the most important category to define. Most of us put off investing in a new technology unless one or more people we respect – and envy – buys into it, and shows it off at the next gathering. The real challenge here is finding car guys, and gals, who are enamored with green cars, fuels, and technologies. These days, there’s quite a lot of focus on the needed charging and fueling infrastructure, battery systems, electric power plant energy sources, comparative lifecycle costs, etc. As for now, there’s not enough awareness and understanding of what’s under the hood and on the dashboard. More car guys and gals are needed.


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