Consumers are quite befuddled about the different types of clean vehicles and smart-charging systems, according to new research, with potential negative impact on uptake. The finding suggests a great need for stronger public awareness campaigns.
Early adopters of electric vehicles are likely to know much more about the subject than mainstream consumers. But if society is to achieve deep decarbonisation of transport, then it is millions of everyday consumers that need to be switching away from internal combustion engine vehicles, and not just the environmentally-minded enthusiasts. And here, it appears that manufacturers are hitting a wall of confusion.
A group of researchers at Simon Fraser University engaged in in-depth surveys of 22 new-vehicle-buying households in the Vancouver area to explore their level of knowledge about the subject.
They found that most households had very low levels of awareness about the difference between electric-only cars (known as battery-electric vehicles or BEVs), plug-in hybrid electric cars (PHEVs), and conventional hybrid electric cars (HEVs) Both BEVs and PHEVs are recharged from an external power source, while the latter also can switch to fossil fuel combustion when needed. HEVs on the other hand combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor to reduce fuel consumption, and are only refuelled by gasoline. The batteries of HEVS are charged by capturing energy when braking.
The households were also unsure which models were which type, and often did not know that some models come in more than one type. Many believed opting for any of the three cars would mean “cleaner air” or “helping the environment” but no households expressly said that the purpose was to reduce carbon emissions or address climate change. Some felt that the batteries were an environmental drawback because they might be toxic or difficult to recycle.
Most households surveyed were uncertain or mistaken about how electricity is generated in BC, and why the source of power (clean or fossil-fuel-based) determines whether EVs have a positive impact on climate. They also had no knowledge of smart-charging systems in which an electric company controls the timing of charging or its direction of electricity flow in order to help balance out the intermittency of variable renewable energy sources such as wind or solar. When such systems were explained, several households worried about loss of control or expressed lack of trust in the electric utility.
The researchers are careful to caution against taking their results as fully representative of the wider population due to the limitations of the study design. Nevertheless, they argue that both industry and government should take steps to address what appears from these initial findings to be a widespread misunderstanding amongst mainstream car buyers about the subject. They suggest that information and marketing campaigns be developed targeting these areas of lack of awareness. Government might want to consider supporting community-led outreach activities, while on the industry side, companies should hire knowledgeable sales staff who can more actively engage customers.
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.