In this final presentation from the Electrifying Transportation panel I moderated at the Renewable Cities Global Learning Forum, professor Jonn Axsen from Simon Fraser University discusses findings he and his team have made in ~10 years of EV buyer and potential buyer research.
Jonn is a big proponent of the plug-in hybrid approach that many automakers are currently taking, and he has actually advised some (like Toyota) to do so. He notes that mainstream buyers are more attracted to this idea/technology. I’m definitely a fan of using PHEVs as stepping stones to full electrification — I think it’s needed right now. But I also think the period for which PHEVs will be important is more limited than many think, and that PHEVs remove some of the big benefits of electric vehicles (which I’ve discussed before). Furthermore, it’s often hard for mainstream buyers to understand what they will want in 5 years when they don’t understand a new technology well, which I think is the case with this market. As the famous quote attributed to Henry Ford goes, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Indeed. I think that is again the case here.
Much more interesting, imho, Jonn lays out a number of important barriers to EV adoption. As I noted in my opening presentation, the first item Jonn lists is lack of familiarity. (And I’ll reiterate, if people aren’t familiar with EVs at all, it’s questionable whether asking them about their preferences between a pure EV and a PHEV is useful at this point.)
Another important aspect is whether or not buyers have access to home charging, which I’d also consider to be the second-biggest barrier to adoption right now. And third is a lack of variety. If you don’t like the style, size, or color options for the EVs you can get in your area, it’s hard to tell you that you’d be better off with an EV. Right now, the options are indeed quite limited, especially if you don’t live in a hot initial market like California or Norway.
I’d add on that, even after that, many dealers will try hard to steer you away from an EV and backward toward a gasmobile.
In the end, though, Jonn argues that these various barriers cut the presumed latent demand of 30% of potential buyers to just 1%.
One final point worth highlighting is that Jonn and his team have found that supply-focused policies like the “Zero Emissions Vehicle Mandates” found in 11 US states (most prominently, California) are by far the most important for increasing EV adoption. His modeling found that strong demand-side incentives would increase EV adoption to ~10% of the new car market by 2030 (up from a baseline 5%), while strong supply-side and demand-side could get that percentage up to ~35%.
I think the general point is very important, but I think this projections are missing some key points. The biggest is that I think the greater convenience and better drive quality of EVs will drive a quick transition to EVs once awareness improves and upfront costs come down. We’ll have to wait to see, but I see projections like this as being similar to projections in 1990 that not even a million people would have cell phones by 2005. Discounting the superior aspects and disruptive potential of new technologies is quite common, and I think that is being done here again. However, I also agree that ZEV mandates and demand-side incentives are critical until we reach that all-important “tipping point.”
Anyway, that’s my summary and 3 cents. Here’s the full presentation in various formats:
For previous presentations from this panel, see: