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Electric Vehicles – the battle of personal versus societal benefits

by Don Deveaux , 13.09.2013

With the plethora of news about diminishing natural resources, noise and air pollution and major oil spills, one would think that automotive consumers would be rushing to buy electric vehicles (EVs) - or showing at least more than a passing interest in them – but that is simply not the case.

This is particularly odd given the fact that consumers across six of the major markets have said they are generally favorable towards electric vehicles. It seems that we are willing to consider EVs, but when it comes down to the actual purchase decision, the vast majority of us do not yet have the critical motivation to choose them over the old internal combustion engine that has been the primary propulsion system for automobiles for decades. So, what is holding us back?

To find out, we have to delve into the underlying motivations and tradeoffs that consumers make when deciding what vehicle to purchase. It comes down to what’s more important: ‘me’ benefits, or ‘we’ benefits – that is, those benefits which transcend ‘me’ and help others. When asked about their perceptions of EVs, consumers acknowledge a whole range of ‘we’ benefits, including reduced noise pollution, lower emissions, less use of natural resources – all of which benefit society as a whole. But when it comes to reasons why they won’t consider an electric vehicle, it is the ‘me’ motivations which trump these ‘we’ benefits – such as lack of choice, inconvenience (concern over low driving range and, to a lesser extent, lack of public recharging points) and cost (initial purchase price and a short life span for relatively expensive EV batteries). Until manufacturers address these deficiencies, consumers will choose to help themselves before helping others: it’s basic human behavior.

This is not just an issue in the more mature markets such as the US and Japan. Consumers are definitely more familiar with, and open to considering, EVs in these markets than, say, China, but there is still a large gap between being open to considering an EV or hybrid vehicle and actually buying one. China remains the most reluctant to purchase, primarily because of lack of awareness. The market is new and consumers are still becoming personally familiar with cars in general, so they prefer the known ground of traditional gasoline engines. This lack of familiarity is also manifested in China as concern about reliability and safety, with the lack of infrastructure also being a major impediment to consideration.

So what is the future outlook? The EVs currently on the road, or that will be introduced soon, have addressed many of these ‘me’ issues already – often by offering hybrid options. Vehicles such as the Chevrolet Volt virtually eliminate the fear of being stranded by combining an electric engine with a gasoline-powered engine, for use in emergencies. But consumers are still wary, especially now that traditional vehicles are poaching some of the ‘we’ benefits of EVs, with options such as stop-start technology. EVs will not become a mainstream option until they can offer a package of ‘me’ benefits that genuinely compete with their petrol and diesel powered cousins.

This article first appeared in AutomotiveWorld.com