The Flex Fuel Car You Don’t Know About – Your Own

by Bryan Harland

Last year, a gas station in my neighborhood installed E85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline) and biodiesel pumps amid much fanfare. Since I represent a biofuels and bio-based chemicals company, I was excited to be able to see consumer response to the new pumps first hand. I went down to the station for 30 minutes one Saturday afternoon to ask consumers their thoughts on the new pump. What I found, however, was an unused pump (the two people that did stop parked at the pump to go inside for a snack) and a public engagement opportunity for the advanced biofuels industry.

So why in the Bay Area, a region considered to be environmentally conscious and  full of early adopters of new technologies, is there low traffic at a biofuel pump that is only one of a few in the area?

Part of the problem is low consumer awareness. A recent Maritz Automotive Research Group study found that only 17% of consumers were “very familiar” with flex fuel vehicles (cars that can operate on gas mixes up to 85% ethanol). What’s more, a survey conducted in 2005 found that 68% of flex fuel vehicle owners didn’t even know they were driving a car that could take E85 gas (Wiki)! In 2009 (most recent data available), there were over 8.3 million flex fuel vehicles spanning over 100 models on the road. If those awareness numbers held steady, that’s potentially 5.6 million E85 cars not being utilized.

Photo, Ford Motor Company

Do you know if you’re one of those unaware they have the option of using E85 in your car? Do you know how to check? There are currently 104 different makes built by the major car manufacturers on the market. Flex fuel vehicles don’t cost more than other cars and aren’t always advertised as such. Some have obvious markings on the outside of the car, as in the photo to the right, but others are less obvious. It could be as simple as having a yellow gas cap or even a small sticker on the inside of your gas lid (below). Click here to find out if your car takes E85 and here to find out where to fill it up.

Photo, General Motors

Photo, General Motors

The biofuels industry has done a great job of telling the story about ethanol’s benefits to the energy industry and politicians, but it’s time to shift some of that focus to engaging the consumer directly. My neighborhood gas station has video monitors right at the pumps that offer a great opportunity to show PSAs on flex fuel vehicles and E85. Another point of purchase opportunity is offering information at the car dealership itself. Wouldn’t “you have the option to use cleaner fuel when purchasing this car” be a great selling point to those consumers looking at alternative fuel vehicles like EVs, but feeling “range anxiety”?

As the advanced biofuels industry ramps up to commercial production and builds out the distribution infrastructure, it won’t be enough to simply build it and they will come. We’ll need to build it, educate them, and then they will come. Block-by-block, driver-by-driver, oil companies, car companies and local station-owners will have to team up to educate consumers on their choices.

I’d love to hear your comments on how to make your local gas station exciting again, beyond the Big Gulp and the king-size candy bars.