Recent survey research on consumer awareness of alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) released by Maritz Automotive Research Group in January shows that while consumer awareness continues to grow at the highest levels ever, only about one in five consumers say they are “very familiar” with any alternative fuel technologies.

Moreover, the researchers also found that consumers have relatively low technical knowledge of electric technology including electric only and hybrid electric vehicles. In fact, many respondents saw present electric technology vehicles as useful only for those who do limited driving.

“Our research indicates that over time consumers see the adoption of electric power and other alternative power train vehicles as an imminent reality. Yet today, low consumer familiarity and understanding of alternative fuel vehicles—including both electric only and gasoline-electric hybrids—has a cooling effect on their purchase intent,” said Dave Fish, Ph.D., vice president of Maritz Research.

Maritz found that in the last five years, the percentage of consumers very familiar with electric only vehicles has doubled from eight to 16 percent. Meanwhile, the familiarity with flexible fuel vehicles rose from 12 to 17 percent, and the awareness of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles rose from 15 to 22 percent. While awareness and knowledge have both increased since 2006, the Maritz researchers said awareness levels still have a long way to go if widespread consumer adoption of these technologies is to take place.

“This research is instructive for auto manufacturers, dealers and other stakeholders as to current consumer perceptions that should either be corrected or reinforced,” said Fish. “It shows that consumers require more education about the product options and characteristics associated with individual brands and technologies.”

Consumer appeal and positive opinions of AFVs and their benefits have also been rising. Maritz found that almost three-fourths (74 percent) of respondents said they felt AFVs were good because they reduced dependence on foreign oil.

“With automakers struggling and renewed emphasis on reducing oil dependence, consumers are eager for innovation,” said Jim Mulcrone, senior manager for Maritz.

Meanwhile, 68 percent said they would consider obtaining an alternative fuel vehicle because they have fewer negative environmental impacts, and 59 percent said AFVs are appealing because they cost less in the long run than gasoline-powered vehicles. Additionally, hybrid, hydrogen fuel cell, battery electric and biodiesel technologies each grew several percentage points in appeal between 2005 and 2008. Hybrid vehicles went from 18 to 24 percent, fuel cells went from 11 to 15 percent, battery electric vehicles rose from just 3.4 to 9.4 percent and biodiesel-fueled vehicles rose in consumer appeal from zero to 4 percent.

Hybrid, fuel cell and battery electric vehicles were most appealing in the study, and they, along with biodiesel technology, are growing in consumer appeal.

Individuals were asked by Maritz which alternative fuel vehicle they would prefer out of 11 choices. Hybrid, fuel cell and battery electric vehicles were most appealing in the study, and they, along with biodiesel technology, are growing in consumer appeal. Credit: Maritz Research

When it comes to specific vehicles and vehicle technologies, consumers also have a hard time identifying particularities. For example, 39 percent of consumers said they were familiar with the Chevrolet Volt, but only three out of 10 of these individuals agreed with the correct statement that, “The Chevrolet Volt has a range-extending gas generator that produces enough energy to propel it for up to 300 additional miles.”

Likewise, only 17 percent said they were familiar with the Nissan LEAF, and only three out of 10 of these individuals agreed with the correct statement that “the battery back that runs the Nissan Leaf should last around 100,000 miles.” In addition, 31 percent said they thought that a quick-charge station using 480 volts could charge the LEAF in about 30 minutes.

The Toyota Prius received one of the highest familiarity ratings of all of the AFVs at 75 percent. However, many respondents were even unsure about some of the Prius’ characteristics after more than a decade on the market. About six in 10 respondents were able to correctly identify that the Prius does not need to be plugged in.

“The data indicates that consumers are still confused about these new technologies,” said Fish. “This confusion will continue to be a barrier to widespread adoption of alternative fuels vehicles.”

Maritz’ New Vehicle Customer Study has been conducted annually since 2005. This year the study was a nationwide representative sample of 1,207 licensed drivers aged 18 years and older. The results were then weighted based on licensed driver data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Polling was conducted between Oct. 22 and Nov. 8, 2010.

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