By Dr. Andrew Jones
In a recent study of consumers undertaken by researchers in the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University, attitudes towards some of the more dramatic innovations in motoring were explored. Motoring choices, views regarding autonomous vehicles, mobility services, electric vehicles, and new ownership models such as car sharing clubs, were explored in a series of focus groups. The resulting insights in relation to EVs, new ownership models, and driverless vehicles highlighted tensions worthy of further debate.
In relation to electric vehicles, it was unsurprising that the consumers highlighted some of the enduring barriers to adoption: factors such as inadequate range and high purchase price. However, the technology itself was viewed as desirable. Interestingly, participants saw EVs as a status or luxury product. In this sense, branding was argued to be important with the respondents having an extremely favourable view of Tesla, which was seen as a ‘high end’ product. There was a less positive view of EVs manufactured by many mainstream producers, with these vehicles seen as less desirable:
“I’d say they’re desirable depending upon the brand. So, there’s Tesla and I’d see it as quite a desirable product, high end, whereas if it was the Toyota Prius, maybe not as desirable.”
The notion of ‘desirability’ is linked to the performance and appearance of the vehicles, with Tesla being seen to hold an advantage over other manufacturers in this aspect. However, if these vehicles are to be treated as ‘gadgets’ or as ‘high end’ technology then, for even premium manufacturers, EVs must contain high-tech features:
“Branding doesn’t necessarily mean how good it is. So, if you’ve a BMW i3, which is, for what it is, a small hatchback, there’s not a lot of car for the money. Whereas a Nissan Leaf, you’ve got a lot more gadgets in there for a lot less.”
In considering new models of mobility and ownership, most participants expressed favourable views of services such as Uber, with convenience and flexibility seen as advantageous compared to conventional forms of travel. Alongside these services, respondents were also asked to consider new models of ownership, such as car clubs. Whilst there was a favourable view of these services, particularly as a mechanism to influence EV adoption, some participants questioned their convenience/accessibility, and were of the opinion that others would be the adoption group, but not them! A somewhat ‘selfish’ view, perhaps, as the individual circumstance is seen as the most important stimulus for these views:
“With Uber you…know when they’re going to be arriving… you don’t have to stand outside in the rain waiting for your cab.”
Whilst these views may seem favourable in light of consumers seeking new technological solutions, in other cases there were elements of resistance, born out of long-established cultural norms in relation to driving. For example, this was particularly evident when participants considering charging their routines for an electric vehicle:
“You pull into a petrol station, just ready to go at any minute whereas [with an EV] you have to charge it for x amount of hours to get x amount of mileage. I think you have to be a lot more prepared with an electric car.”
Another tension was apparent when consumers in the research addressed autonomy. For the consumers in each of the focus groups there were cultural factors, such as enjoying the routine of driving, which made driverless cars unattractive. As with the car sharing discussion, suggested potential users of autonomous vehicles were from other social groups; implying that these consumers believed the technology to be suitable, but only for a subset of the population… and not for themselves!
For those organisations who want to increase adoption or bring EVs and other innovations to market, these findings reinforce some of the implicit challenges present. It is apparent from this research that consumers are still lacking adequate information to make choices, and they also have a series of set routines or behaviours in relation to their transport decisions which may clash with these new technologies and options. Until consumers are better educated in terms of understanding these options and benefits, it is unlikely that adoption rates will reach the levels desired by government, manufacturers and other bodies. Moreover, how manufacturers deal with the contradiction between the vehicles being seen as ‘status’ products and ‘too expensive’ is another issue impacting upon adoption rates and the positioning of these products.
These research findings also have wider implications in terms of policy provision surrounding EVs, driverless vehicles and other new developments in motoring. Not only does this research highlight how the existing infrastructure for EV support requires on-going investment, it also reflects the need for additional information to be provided to consumers to ensure they can make a more informed choice concerning EVs, autonomy and any such radically disruptive innovation.
Further, more longitudinal research is now planned into EVs, autonomy and new business models, to better understand the requisites and impediments for wider adoption and ‘buy-in’. There is a need to study attitudes over a longer period and from a wider and more diverse audience. More complex research methods will now be deployed by the team from Coventry University, such as Citizens’ Summits and the analysis of demonstrator trials, to generate more revealing insights once consumers are exposed to these products and better understand them as a result of such interactive research methods.