In their first full year of mass-market availability since the early 2000s, electric vehicle (EV) sales – led by the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt – were lackluster and fell well short of projections. Though there have been challenges, the silver lining is that the EV revolution’s second wave is well under way: Earlier this year, President Obama called for 1 million EVs on the road by 2015, and despite tame sales in 2011, GM expects to sell about 45,000 Volts in the U.S. in 2012 – more than 6 times their total 2011 sales.
The enthusiastic auto industry and environmentally minded communities have, however, faced speed bumps along the way as they try to convince skeptical masses that EVs are part of the answer to today’s ecological and economic challenges. Having watched the EV industry with great interest since 2009, it seems to me that one of the most difficult roadblocks to groundswell support is helping drivers shift their notions of what it means to “fill-up.”
First, it is important to appreciate the deep and bittersweet history of oil dependence we have in the United States – from the oil crisis of the 1970s to a love affair with sport utility vehicles brought on, in part, by cheap oil prices in the late 1990s. Couple this history with the ubiquity of gas stations, and the current gasoline-addicted mindset of drivers is understandable.
Shifting habits and taking charge
My own driving habits echo the psychological change EV champions must target in the minds of consumers. Like many other drivers, I fill up my car with gas only when my tank is at least half-empty and refuel for only a few minutes every week or so. With this deep-seeded habit in mind, EVs seem impractical at best – when my battery is half-empty, I certainly don’t want to wait around for two to more than 10 hours, depending on the method of charge, to “fill-up.” There is a fundamental error with this analogy, however.
Though physical EV charging stations are not omnipresent like their petroleum counterparts, any plug an EV parks near can become a filling station. Rather than driving to almost-empty, EV drivers are able to frequently “top-off” and therefore are much less likely to hit “E” on an average day of driving. In fact, a recent Pike Research study found that nearly 75 percent of drivers travel 40 miles or less to work daily, which is well within the nearly 100 mile range of available electric cars, even if you’re only charging at home.
Not sure how far you drive in a day? One Edelman client, GE, has an excellent tool powered by Google Maps that helps show how an electric vehicle would fit your driving needs.
EV adoption slowly moving into high gear
Even though this “top-off” mentality will take time to grab hold in consumers’ mindsets, the good news is that consumers have already shown they are willing to shift to EVs and plug-in hybrids. Even in the depths of the recession in 2009, a Nielson Energy Survey (pdf) found that a majority of U.S. consumers (nearly 85 percent) said they would be interested in driving a plug-in either when their car needed replacement or the technology became more mainstream.
While positive strides have been made to better inform drivers about the benefits of EVs, education must remain a top priority. It’s encouraging to see that educational marketing will be part of the focus for many EV makers throughout 2012, according Pike Research (pdf).
So, the next time you hear questions about EVs, remember that it isn’t necessarily a discussion of how long a vehicle takes to charge, but rather how often drivers are able to “top-off.”
If you are interested in learning more about EVs, I highly recommend the following resources:
- On Twitter, tune in to #EVChat every Monday from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET
- Pike Research has an excellent collection of electric vehicle research
- The Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA) and GoElectricDrive.com have a wealth of information on all things EV
What do you think about EVs – will 2012 be the year the cars go mainstream? Share your thoughts in the comments section below or let me know on Twitter.