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Green Car People: Who Buys Electric And Plug-In Vehicles?


2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

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Once upon a time, people who bought (or built) electric vehicles were often science-minded, forward-thinking, eco-conscious drivers who sometimes had a hippie past.

Times have changed.

Today, there are several motivations for buying a car that plugs into the electric grid to recharge its battery pack.

Drawing loosely on research on the motivations of plug-in car buyers, done a few years ago at the University of California-Davis by a team headed by Tom Turrentine, rough categories of electric-car buyers include:

  • Early Adopters: These are the folks who line up (or pay their teenaged kids to line up) at Apple Stores for the latest iPad, iPhone, and so forth. The electric car, to them, is the latest, coolest, most advanced new consumer product around. They're often evangelists for electric driving, and people turn to them for advice.
  • Uber-Greens: These buyers genuinely care about reducing their impact on the planet, and modify their life accordingly. They pay attention to their carbon footprint, and understand that driving on grid power lowers it considerably.
  • Energy Security Hawks: While they may share few political views with the Uber-Greens, these buyers care deeply about reducing the amount of oil imported from countries and regimes who reject many of the principles they believe the U.S. stands for. Every mile driven on grid power, to them, is less gasoline we had to send dollars abroad for.
  • Cheap Bastards: And we use that term fondly! These folks, like hard-nosed vehicle-fleet managers, analyze the total lifetime cost of ownership of their car. They've calculated that even though electric cars cost more up front, they'll more than make up the difference if they drive X miles a year for Y years, including assumptions about future gas and electric prices.

These four groups are, of course, gross reductions and stereotypes. And many buyers share all these motivations to some extent. But our experience has led us to think there's some truth to them.

If you're considering buying an electric car or have already bought one--or, if you have decisively rejected doing so--let us know where you fit into these profiles, or how you'd characterize yourself.

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.

Editor's Note: We originally published this article on June 2, 2008, well before any electric cars were on the market. Even the Tesla Roadster wasn't yet in production. We've now revisited the piece and updated it to reflect the latest research, and what we know thus far about plug-in cars and their buyers.

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Comments (12)
  1. All sort of people are trying to invest in a electric or hybrid car because they think that it will save them money in the long run. This is true when it comes to fuel but people do not understand the increase in cost they will recieve when there vehicle breaks, this should be made clear while apon purchase.
     
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  2. We'll see. I believe the electric motor and the accompanying electronics will hold up longer than the standard gas engine, in addition to the significant savings in fuel that I'm currently experiencing.
     
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  3. I think I'm a combination of early adopter and uber-greens, though my car is currently ice powered, when I bought I decided it would be my last car fueled by gasoline. And I find the easiest way to get other people interested in EVs is to appeal to their inner cheap bastard, though I think the world economy has made all of our inner cheap bastards grow a little ; )
     
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  4. I am a little bit from all. I bought a Zero S.
    it lets me park my dog of a car at home.
    the car was a guzzler and is expensive to fix.
    I fitted solar to the house and lower all my consumption.
    and I wanted to anoy my V8 mates with an electric.
     
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  5. One more category: people who worry about peak oil. People who realize that global oil production is all but maxed out while demand in countries like China and India has only just begun and worry about how fierce competition for increasingly scarce resources could make this world an ugly (uglier...) place. Related to security hawks I suppose.
     
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  6. Oil is about to run out, and always will be. Natural gas, on the other hand ...
     
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  7. I think we are also "all four" of these motivations. I am comfortable with paying more at acquisition as long as the day to day costs are massively reduced--as they are with an EV or EREV even.

    And we are certainly early adopters in terms of the "techie toys" around the house.

    As long-time endurance athletes (first marathon in 1979 and 1980 respectively for myself and my wife) and more than 400 marathons between us, we are dedicated to a cleaner air environment. We also have both solar PV and solar hot water on our house and total low water climate appropriate landscaping at our home.

    And we certainly have no love-loss with either the Mideast oil sheiks or our own environmental pillagers seeking profit in black gold.
     
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  8. I'm a cheap bastard, thank you. I was just spending too much money on gas. Although, I also fall into the energy security profile as well. I'm old enough to remember each time someone in the mid east yanked our oil chain to get our attention. We need to be consuming U.S. produced energy.
     
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  9. Natural gas is good for businesses and those who drive a lot. EVs can make 95% of consumers happy and is the best option though. We should just throw induction coins under all the interstates, boom, problem solved.
     
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  10. I think it may be time to add the "I need a new car, and this one happens to be electric" category. Tesla sells a lot to people in this category. Techies also buy these. I am definitely a techie and see this as the future. I actually fall under all these categories. I couldn't afford the car if it wouldn't save me money, foreign oil is an issue, and the environment is huge for me. The reason I am ordered a new Leaf instead of a used one is so that there is another Leaf on the road.
     
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  11. They are stereotypes, but useful for the discussion. Most people who get these cars fit into more than one. For instance, I would consider myself 1,4,3 in order and #2 is a positive just coming along for the ride.
     
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  12. Not sure where I fit in. I just bought a Smart Electric Drive before Christmas. It was my first new car in over 40 years. I own two vintage Triumph sports cars and have owned 5 more over the years, a Miata Mazda Speed, a Subaru Forester and a small older RV. My carbon footprint has been considerable but my rides interesting and considered for performance and economy for the most part. The electric now allows me to reduce my carbon footprint and presents the challenge of learning new skills at 68 to squeeze all of the amps out of the battery pack and meet the challenge of getting there and back within its limits. I am having a ball with the Smart Electric but still adjusting to driving a "Cute Car". Life is too short to drive boring cars!
     
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