Why Are Electric Vehicle Sales Low? Psychology Provides Clues

At the Washington Auto Show this month, automakers prominently displayed dozens of electric vehicles.

Audi showcased the e-tron, its first electric SUV. Elsewhere in the massive showroom, Chevrolet exhibited a bright lime-green Bolt.

But the prevalence of EVs at the show in downtown Washington, D.C., belied their deep unpopularity with American consumers.

Plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles account for just around 2% of car sales in the country, according to the tracking website Inside EVs. Consumers continue to gravitate toward gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks, which made up 68% of the market last year.

And yet, recent scientific reports have found that EVs will play a crucial role in reducing pollution from the transportation sector, now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

So why aren’t Americans purchasing EVs in greater numbers?

Experts who study human behavior think it’s because consumers lack fundamental information about how EVs can improve the environment and their pocketbooks.

“A critical thing—and we learned this from investments in home energy efficiency—is that individuals in households need reasonably accurate information from sources they trust at the point of decision,” said Paul Stern, a principal staff officer at the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

Stern is a leading expert in a growing subfield of environmental psychology that is focused on how humans make decisions that affect climate change. Scholars explore how and why people choose to recycle, turn off lights and buy energy-efficient appliances.

He said he thinks more Americans would purchase EVs if they received information about their benefits from a credible source.

“Credible sources are different for different people,” he said. “I might prefer to read Consumer Reports; someone else might prefer to ask a neighbor who’s adopted the technology.”

But the type of information also matters, Stern writes in his book “Contributions of Psychology to Limiting Climate Change: Opportunities Through Consumer Behavior.”

Consumers may not respond to facts about how EVs reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly if they don’t identify as an environmentalist, Stern writes. They may respond more to facts about how EVs will save them money in the long run or outperform their gasoline-powered competitors.

Indeed, a 2012 survey of potential EV adopters from the Missouri University of Science and Technology found that consumers placed less weight on sustainability than on cost and performance.

“With expensive things, environmental objectives might take second place,” Stern said. “You know, what’s the performance of the car? How fast will it go?”

The upfront price of an EV still tends to be higher than that of a conventional vehicle. For instance, the gas-powered Nissan Sentra sells for around $17,790, while the electric Nissan Leaf sells for around $22,490.

But research has shown that EVs save consumers money in the long run, as they need to be repaired far less often and cost much less to operate. A 2018 study from the University of Michigan found that EVs cost an average of $485 to refuel per year, while gasoline-powered vehicles cost an average of $1,117.

Thomas Dietz, another leading environmental psychologist, agreed that providing credible information is key.

“People probably lack information from trusted sources not only about the environmental impacts of their car purchases, but also about the impacts on their family budget,” Dietz, a professor of sociology and environmental science and policy at Michigan State University, said in an email.

But societal norms cannot be overlooked, either.

“Norms are one of the most powerful influences on behavior, and one of the easiest to change,” Dietz said. “If lots of your friends, relatives and neighbors are buying hybrids or electric vehicles, you’ll probably give them serious consideration. If you don’t know anyone who has a hybrid or electric, you’re probably not going to be the first to buy one.”

To shift norms, Dietz suggested having early adopters of EVs preach their benefits to friends, relatives and other acquaintances. He also noted that many Americans consider cars a part of their identity. To that end, he said luxury EVs like Tesla’s Model 3 can become status symbols, luring potential wealthy buyers.

Mike Vandenbergh, director of the Climate Change Research Network at Vanderbilt University, also stressed the importance of credible information. But he said the onus shouldn’t be on consumers to seek out that knowledge; car dealers and automakers should readily provide it.

“I think what matters more, and what tends to get overlooked, is whether the institutions are promoting more fuel-efficient vehicles,” Vandenbergh said.

That’s where things get tricky.

Car dealers across the country are failing to adequately promote EVs, the Sierra Club concluded in a recent report based on surveys from 308 volunteers who called or visited dealerships in 10 states.

“Our volunteers told us that nearly half the time EVs were not displayed prominently, and that the plug-in cars were often hard to find on a dealership lot,” the report says. “Some people even found themselves unable to test-drive an EV because the dealership had failed to charge it.”

Compounding the problem, an established body of literature shows that automakers spend barely any advertising money on promoting EVs (Greenwire, Jan. 9, 2017).

For instance, a recent report commissioned by the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management found that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles didn’t spend a single penny on promoting the Fiat 500e in the United States, despite its popularity in Europe.

The report also found that Nissan, Toyota and Ford spent a tiny fraction of their total advertising dollars on the Leaf, Prius Prime, and Fusion and C-Max Energi, respectively.

Vandenbergh said consumer behavior is ultimately one piece of a larger puzzle; automakers and dealers must also have the incentive to sell more EVs.

To provide such an incentive, Vandenbergh suggested advocacy groups or investors ramp up pressure on Fortune 500 companies. Many of those companies have committed to becoming carbon-neutral or buying 100% renewable power, he said. But they could also commit to doing business only with automotive firms that encourage their dealers to sell more EVs.

If that doesn’t work, it may be time for a new model altogether.

“If dealers will not change their behavior, it may be that we need new, competing types of car dealers,”andenbergh said. “One answer is the Tesla model. It’s not by chance that Tesla is essentially trying to set up their own dealerships.”

Back at the Washington Auto Show, attendees on a recent Friday afternoon milled around the large showroom, inspecting EVs and gas guzzlers alike.

Patrick and Meg Flanagan, a couple visiting for the day, said they would never consider buying an EV.

“It’s a little too futuristic for us right now,” Patrick Flanagan said as the couple looked at a gas-powered minivan.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.

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