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