Study: Consumers Very Interested In Electric Cars & Hybrids. Diesels, Not So Much

November 18, 2013

Last week, we told you about a new study commissioned by Audi, which proves that consumers want to see more diesel vehicles in U.S. showrooms. That struck us as awfully convenient, since Audi has been trying for years to persuade Americans that diesels provide the improved fuel economy and reduced emissions they crave.

Now, by complete coincidence, we've received word of a very different study -- one that suggests very different public sentiment toward diesels, electrics, and other alternative vehicles. If the findings are accurate, the news for diesel fans isn't so good.

The study was conducted by Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates LLC -- an international market research firm -- and the National Association of Convenience Stores. (The NACS involvement might seem a bit odd until you consider that convenience stores are where much of America gets its gasoline.) Together, the two polled 804 gasoline buyers across the U.S.

According to the survey's results, when it comes to alternative vehicles, U.S. consumers are most interested in hybrid and electric cars. In fact, a very impressive 62 percent are excited about seeing more hybrid-electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt and Prius Plug-In Hybrid roll out over the next ten years. An even-more impressive 74 percent of those surveyed would consider buying such a vehicle for themselves.

In second place: battery-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S. While just 43 percent said that they were looking forward to seeing more of those cars on the road in the coming decade, a full 58 percent said that they would consider purchasing one.

Fuel cell, natural gas, and flex fuel vehicles were on respondents' radar, too. While only about a third of those surveyed seemed excited by the thought of new models (34 percent for fuel cell vehicles, 31 percent for natural gas, and 30 percent for flex fuel), many more said that they'd consider purchasing an alt-fuel vehicle. The public was most willing to consider buying flex fuel rides (62 percent), followed by fuel cell vehicles (58 percent) and natural gas-powered vehicles (53 percent).

At the bottom of the pack: diesel. Only 38 percent of those surveyed said they'd consider purchasing a diesel vehicle within the next ten years. However, the numbers were higher among folks planning to buy a new vehicle within the next two years: in that group, 50 percent said they'd be willing to consider a diesel.

To look at those results, you might think that respondents were especially passionate about environmental issues. That could explain why consumers would be interested in diesel vehicles over the next two years (as hybrid and electric technologies pick up speed) but less so a decade down the line (when hybrid and electric technologies will likely have improved exponentially). 

However, the biggest factors affecting purchasing decisions among all those surveyed were economic. The results show that customers who'd consider alternative vehicles were most interested in earning better fuel economy and receiving tax breaks. 


As with the Audi study, it's hard to question the accuracy of these findings. Penn, Schoen and Berland know their way around a survey, and we doubt they're the sort to rig the answers.

That said, the firm's sample size was awfully small. The Audi survey polled just 2,041 consumers, which borders on iffy. A survey like this, which included just 804 respondents, would need a lot of follow-up before we'd feel comfortable taking the results at face value. 

Also, neither Penn, Schoen and Berland nor the NACS indicated how their questions were phrased. As we pointed out in our report on the Audi study, the wording of questions can easily predispose respondents to a particular set of answers.

On the other hand, the NACS doesn't have much to gain from this study -- in fact, the results seem to paint a moderately bleak picture for the convenience-story industry. Audi, however, has a lot of money and product at stake in selling diesels, which makes its commissioned study seem suspect, at the very least.

For now, we'll simply take this survey as more evidence that the diesel vs. electric battle is not as clear-cut as pundits would have us believe. Hopefully, someone will publish a more thorough study of consumer habits down the line.


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