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“High-performance, Fun-to-Drive” Electric Vehicles: ITS-Davis Study Reveals Surprising Consumer Motives

By Scott Hardman|https://twitter.com/scottiehardman

Who’s most likely to drive an electric vehicle? An environmentally conscious consumer, many would respond. One of the key societal benefits of electric vehicles is that they produce zero tailpipe emissions and result in far fewer carbon emissions per mile travelled. This means that EVs can help mitigate the issues of climate change and urban air pollution, which arguably are some of the most prevalent issues of our time.

Indeed many studies have found that early adopters of electric vehicles cite environmental factors. Often early consumers are willing to make personal sacrifices when adopting an electric vehicle. We are all aware that the purchase price of an electric vehicle is higher than that of a gas vehicle, and that many have limited ranges, often less than 100 miles.

Not all EVs have limited range though; the Tesla Model S & Roadster are fully electric vehicles with range of 240-270 miles, have fast charge times, high performance, bold looks, luxury and high tech features. These attributes do however come at a cost, which is $70,000 to $105,000 for the Model S. This combination of benefits results in people adopting zero emission vehicles for reasons beyond environmental ones.

A study at the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center is investigating reasons for adoption of Tesla electric vehicles. The study samples 39 Tesla adopters in hour-long interviews and is being conducted by myself a visiting scholar from the University of Birmingham with PH&EV director Tom Turrentine overseeing the project. While it is too early to draw decisive conclusions about all Tesla adopters, some interesting themes have emerged.

There were, of course, adopters whose reason for purchasing a Tesla was due to environmental concerns, or due to the positive environmental image they believe the vehicle conveyed to others. But there were more adopters who purchased a Tesla for other reasons.

The most prominent reason for purchasing a Tesla was the vehicle’s high performance, mainly its fast acceleration due to the vast amount of torque off the line. Adopters mentioned this frequently and with much enthusiasm:

“It was fast, and it was fun to drive.” 

“The Tesla has many of those performance visceral rewards, with none of the bruises of upkeep and maintenance”

Before purchasing a Tesla, adopters’ previous vehicles included a Ferrari 360, a Dodge Viper GTS, a Lotus Exige, a BMW M3 and a BMW 550i, among others.

There are also adopters whose purchase was motivated by technological reasons. Of particular note is the household with three all electric cars; a Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S and Th!nk City. The male of this household was eager to note that he was a climate sceptic and did not believe in global climate change. He mainly liked the technology of the vehicles. Many of the other interviewees whose purchase decision was technology related worked in the Bay Area for tech companies..

“I’m a geek at heart, so I just appreciate the technology of this.”

“I’m a early adopter of all new technologies, I stayed up last night and hit buy on a Apple Watch at 12:01am.” 

Many of these performance and technology-oriented consumers indicated their purchase wasn’t environmentally motivated; the environment was not something to which they had given much thought, nor were they interested in that aspect of the car. Similar findings were presented in a recent publication by Kurani, Caperello, TyreeHageman & Davies of the PH&EV Research Center. They reported electric vehicles are not just for “Environmental Wackos” but also people who wish to save money on fuel and maintenance costs. (In contrast to Hardman’s research, their sample included owners of a wide variety of PEVs.).

Clearly, electric vehicles can appeal to people with different motivations. It is imperative, therefore, that EVs be marketed toward not just environmentally conscious consumers, but also to those with other purchase preferences, such as the technological and performance-related issues presented here.

 An approach that advertises and promotes electric vehicles to a wide range of consumers with varying motivations will surely lead to increased sales. We can then all reap the rewards of reduced urban air pollution and mitigation of climate change.

RS13766_phev staff-7A doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, Hardman recently completed his work as a visiting scholar at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies. He will continue to work with PH&EV Center researchers to publish a research article, bringing together interview insights with PH&EV Center survey results, in order to understand the importance of purchase incentives for high-end electric vehicle adopters.