Climate change is an important and pressing issue globally. One of its main contributors is the transportation sector through the release of tailpipe emissions. To curb this issue, governments are now embracing technologies such as electric vehicles that release zero tailpipe emissions. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide that are emitted by tailpipe emissions from the transportation sector, are a leading cause of air pollution, which accounts for one in eight premature deaths worldwide. But even in countries with policies, and electric vehicle awareness there is still potentially low adoption of electric vehicles. This article discusses consumer perceptions of electric vehicles and how these perceptions will influence purchase intentions.
Consumer perceptions of electric vehicles
In 2020, a study by Hardman et al. explored purchase engagement of electric vehicles and found that even in the city where Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) policy originates (Sacramento, California) few consumers are engaged with PEVs, few have considered purchasing one, many cannot name a single BEV or PHEV presently for sale, and many are not aware of incentives to buy or advertising of them. Between July and September 2018 an online questionnaire was administered to residential customers of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District or SMUD, out of 46,857 households randomly selected by SMUD to complete an online survey, 1,137 people started the survey; 961 completed it for an overall response rate of two percent. The low rate is due to their budget allocation which allowed them to neither send reminders nor incentives both of which prove to increase the response rate. Afterward, three ordinal logistic regression models were used to correlate the purchase consideration/intention. Similar work has been done and it has been noted that low consumer knowledge of Plug-in Electric vehicles (PEVs), incentives, and charging infrastructure coupled with poor dealer knowledge creates substantial barriers to the necessary task of growing the PEV market across the population of vehicle-owning households.
Past research on consumer perceptions of electric vehicles has been done globally, especially in countries such as the United States, China, and Malaysia, and one of the barriers to mass adoption is incentives and financial benefits. Apart from the high upfront cost, for example, Zhang evaluates consumer perceptions and motivation toward incentive policies and finds that although incentive policies are widely used to promote large scale use adoption, this can be increased by making the public more aware of the environmental benefits of electric vehicles, increasing charging facilities to reduce the perceived risks of electric vehicles. This view can be shared with Wang’s research, which analyzes purchasing intentions of Chinese citizens on new energy vehicles, similarly, the results show that financial benefits have a positive impact on purchasing intention.
Another potential set of barriers is grouped in terms of vehicle performance. Recent research identified several other factors that influence purchase intention of electric vehicles such as improved acceleration, range limitations, shift quality, and reduced engine noise while cruising; smoother acceleration, a quiet ride; greater convenience of refueling at home; and lower and more certain fuel costs (electricity vs. gasoline) for electric vehicles. Consumers find these to be very important which limits their purchasing intentions. In addition, we must consider another important factor, symbolism.
Another aspect to note is that symbols matter in vehicle purchases as noted by Hefner, some consumers see owning an electric vehicle as a way to care for their environment and think it reflects this image on to others. Symbolic meanings are shown to be important to hybrid electric vehicle purchase and use, understanding the meanings, as well as their construction and communication, is essential for policymakers and others hoping to promote these new types of vehicles. The study explored how widely recognized social meanings (denotations) are connected to more personal meanings (connotations) and the effect that both types of meanings have on vehicle purchase and use. This brings about the question of why would anyone buy an electric vehicle? What social or personal meaning does owning an electric vehicle carry?
Intention is defined as an indication of how hard people are willing to try, of how much of an effort they are planning to exert, to perform the behavior. Given the different contexts, these barriers vary by country, and it is important to consider that as well.
Governments play an important role in incentivizing new innovations generally, and more specifically in helping to improve electric vehicles’ perceived relative advantage, encouraging network effects through infrastructure development, and sponsoring a technology through subsidies and direct purchases from the government, and incentives. It’s important to note that not only do policies reduce air pollution but they have also been seen to have other co-benefits for not only health but also noise reduction and increased green spaces. Instead of burying one’s head in the sand and ignoring these barriers to adoption, we can design frameworks to address them and work towards sustainability, sooner rather than later.
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Daniella Ngarambe is a policy fellow at GIZ where she supports the design and implementation of emerging technologies policy projects. She is a TEDx speaker and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University Africa, with a Master’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Her interests are in research, international development, renewable energy technology, and policy.