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Survey: Shoppers Very Confused About Hybrids, Plug-Ins, And EVs

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Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid prototype, tested in November 2010

Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid prototype, tested in November 2010

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Combined, hybrids, plug-in electrics, and electric vehicles still only account for a very small percentage of the car market.

And outside of the iconic Prius—which Toyota is now developing into a separate green brand with at least two models—there aren't any big hybrid sales successes.

Admittedly, the relatively low price and strong value of the Prius probably has something to do with its continued success, but a new survey from Synovate Motoresearch exposes some potential—and to us, potentially shocking—reasons why hybrids and electrified vehicles haven't appealed on a larger scale: A surprisingly high percentage of new-car shoppers still don't know how hybrids or electrified cars in general work, and that a large portion freely confuses hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and EVs.

Is the public avoiding hybrids and EVs because of confusion?

If you believe that this survey is a good representation of the car-shopping public, your typical car shopper might not have a clue of what a hybrid is, even though they've been offered in the U.S. market for more than a decade.

Only 50 percent of those surveyed thought that hybrids contain batteries—beyond starter/accessory batteries, we assume. And while about one-third knew that knew that hybrids can run on the electric motor only, 28 percent thought that hybrids have no tailpipe emissions at all. The same percentage thought that it takes more than 15 minutes to refuel a hybrid.

Some people also might have confused hybrids and EVs, as 27 percent thought that hybrids have a maximum range of around 150 miles.

The survey asked 1,898 new-vehicle "buyers and intenders," selected by random sampling of about a million U.S. adults who have agreed to regularly participate in the company's surveys. The data was then weighted by vehicle ownership. In the survey, the three types of vehicles were straightforwardly referred to as Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV), Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV), and Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV).

A better understanding of EVs than hybrids or plug-ins?

Overall, whether it be due to the now-widely-viewed Who Killed The Electric Car? or to the simpler idea behind EVs, Nissan might have a slight advantage with its 2011 Leaf electric vehicle. Synovate found that consumers' knowledge of how battery electric vehicles (BEVs) work is better than that for hybrids or plug-in hybrids, but there's still a lot of confusion over basics like charging.

The company thinks that government has a role to play, not just in legislating more fuel-efficient (or less petroleum-dependent) vehicles, but in educating Americans about how they relate to the national security and environmental protection issues.

"The C and D grades consumers earned in our research simply aren't good enough to support the profound societal shift the industry will need to deliver federally-mandated quotas," said Stephen Popiel, the senior vice president of Synovate.

And it leads to the question: With all these different modes and variations of electrified vehicles, it there anything automakers (or we in the media) could do to better inform the public? And are hybrids and plug-ins missing a wide swath of the public that just doesn't understand?


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Comments (8)
  1. I don't think it is reasonable to speed up the process faster than already planned. PHEVs and BEVs are not rusting away on dealer's lots because the public is ignorant, they are being sold as fast as they can be made. By the time production capability is high enough to meet traditional ICE numbers, many more people will have met someone who owns a BEV and another who owns a PHEV. The ball is rolling, I don't think this report is any cause for alarm.

  2. Roy's correct, no need for alarm, but there is work that the government could do to help facilitate the educating of the public. We at Plug In America have produced the 2nd edition of "Charged Up And Ready To Roll: The Definitive Guide To Electric Vehicles", a well written guide that covers just about every question anyone could have about plug-in vehicles. For a copy, see
    We would be happy if government funds were available to help print and disseminate copies spread the word.

  3. Why should the gov pay? Talk to the car companies it their product that your trying to promote. If the Feds didn't have all the incentive how many would actually sell?

  4. No confusion here on my part because I would not want to own either one of them "white elephants".

  5. People are afraid of hybrids. They are afraid of the high cost of batteries. Some are afraid to take them through a car wash for fear of being electrocuted. My wife drives a Prius and it has been a great car. She was apprehensive at first too. Now she is in love with the car. I sell Toyotas. We will be on a waiting list soon for ULEV. Mostly Yaris and Prius. So it might not be the smart thing to send out a campaign to educate consumers. Let them stay in the dark for another ten years. We sell plenty of hybrids regardless.

  6. Taxpayers should NOT be forced to pay to inform people on the differences between the various powertrain choices for automobiles. That's a ridiculous suggestion made by someone with an agenda. There's an abundance of information about hybrids and electric vehicles in the public domain.
    In any case, using acronyms like BEV, PHEV, ULEV will not be helpful in clarifying the differences to the general consumer.

  7. This genre to vehicles only satisfies the need to appear "Green". Fuel economy with a hybrid is pretty nice but, without the Fed/State subsidies, it takes years of such savings to amortize the higher purchase price. A carefully driven compact or subcompact will actually be cheaper, and more reliable over the long run. AND, you can drive one across the country with confidence.

  8. Here's a good electric vehicle community with news and info:

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