Can electric cars be 'contagious'?

August 31, 2016

When we think about contagious things, we tend to think of diseases. But other things can be contagious, too: dancing, laughing, yawning, and, of course, enthusiasm. 

That's how some people have begun thinking about electric cars--specifically, by the way that interest and ownership spreads through communities.

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There's already some data to suggest that other technology spreads like infections do. For example, people are more inclined to install solar panels on their homes if their neighbors have already done so.

Now, a study from the U.S. Department of Energy reports that consumers are 20 times more likely to buy an electric or plug-in hybrid car if they work at a company that offers charging stations.

As with a study we mentioned earlier this week about drivers and economic downturns, the DOE wasn't trying to explain why people are more likely to buy electrics in those situations, only that they are. However, there are some common-sense theories floating around that seem interesting. The most interesting of those is that early adopters prove that electric vehicles are viable.

As with any technology--smartphones, wearables, VoIP--there are early adopters and late adopters. Early adopters have to make do with first-generation products that don't always live up to their hype. In doing so, though, they show later adopters that the technology exists, they share their feelings about it, and they show that it can work in the real world.

READ: Tesla may disable Autopilot for drivers who don't follow the rules

Unfortunately, EV adoption rates may be hampered by dealerships that aren't interested in showcasing their plug-in hybrids or electric cars. The Sierra Club recently asked some of its members to try shopping for electrics. Of the 174 people who participated by visiting 308 dealerships:

  • 42 percent said that electric vehicles weren't front and center;
  • 33 percent said that sales staff didn't discuss federal and state tax credits for EV buyers; and,
  • 14 percent said that dealers claimed their cars weren't charged enough for a test drive.

Granted, as an environmental organization, Sierra Club has an interest in proving that dealers aren't doing enough to promote electric car purchases. Also, studies that rely on volunteers to report their experiences might not be as reliable as studies carried out by paid staff.

And even if the figures are accurate, the incidents don't establish causality--meaning that they don't prove that dealer behavior is responsible for the slow rate of EV adoption in the U.S. (FWIW, electrics make up slightly less than one percent of cars on the road in America.)

That said, we can't say that we're entirely surprised. 

The notion that the public's interest in electric cars evolves like an infection is an intriguing one. What remains unanswered is: when will we reach the tipping point, when EVs become not just a minor infection, but a full-scale epidemic?

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