Canadian Plug-in Electric Vehicle Study: 1 Percent To 30 Percent Is The Challenge

2015 Nissan Leaf

2015 Nissan Leaf

Even two years ago, about a third of Canadian car buyers were open to buying a plug-in electric car--but they need a lot more practical and real-world information about the options than they're getting.

And without sustained and coordinated policy support, those potential buyers may dwindle to the point that electric cars only represent 1 percent of Canadian car sales.

Those are the findings of two recent surveys that have now been analyzed in a new study, Electrifying Vehicles: Insights From The Canadian Plug-in Electric Vehicle Study.

DON'T MISS: Plug-In Electric Cars & Politics In Canada: Taking The Pulse

Published last week by researchers at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, the study and related documents can be downloaded here.

The new study is a landmark report – the executive summary alone runs 26 pages – that summarizes three years of research into plug-in early adopters and mainstream car buyers.

In so doing, it gives a snapshot of "pioneer" and "public" perceptions and attitudes early in Canada's transition to electric mobility.

Smart Electric Drive, University of British Columbia campus, Vancouver [photo: Matthew Klippenstein]

Smart Electric Drive, University of British Columbia campus, Vancouver [photo: Matthew Klippenstein]

Best of all, the research is continuing. Avocates will be able to see how public attitudes evolve over time – and perhaps even infer how to help speed those changes along.

Regarding the attitudes of mainstream car buyers, 1,754 new-vehicle owners in English-speaking Canada were contacted online in 2013. Plug-in pioneer perspectives were obtained from 94 electric-car owners in British Columbia earlier this year.

Glass one-third full

As part of the survey, mainstream car buyers were offered price differentials for conventional, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or battery-electric versions of a vehicle, and were asked which option they would be willing to buy.

ALSO SEE: British Columbia Brings Back Electric-Car Purchase Rebates

The plug-in hybrids were offered with three ranges, the battery-electric vehicles with two, and the battery price premiums were based on available data. High- and low-cost scenarios were also explored, given that purchase incentives can reduce electric vehicles' sticker prices.

About one-third of mainstream respondents in British Columbia opted for a plug-in hybrid of some sort – less in the high-cost scenario, and more in the lower-cost scenario. Less than 5 percent opted for an all-electric vehicle.

In other words, almost all the mainstream interest in electric vehicles centered on plug-in hybrids.

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid - production model

This mix was starkly different from that preferred by the plug-in pioneers in the province. Those pioneers favored plug-in hybrids over battery-electric cars at only a 3-to-2 ratio in the high-cost scenario, and were evenly split in the low-cost scenario.

Both those ratios excluded the 320-kilometer (200-mie) all-electric option (which wasn't available for the mainstream respondents)

In other words, the data suggests that drivers already familiar with electric cars are far more willing than the general public to buy a battery-electric vehicle--most likely because they understand how many miles a day they actually drive, and how well a battery car of a given range will meet those needs.

MORE: Plug-in Electric Car Sales In Canada, June 2015: Dial 'S' For Summer

Indeed, follow-up interviews with 22 mainstream car buyers suggested that their aversion to battery-electric vehicles stemmed from range anxiety and the desire for a back-up combustion engine, out of the fear that electric propulsion might not be reliable.

Ultimately, those households can be viewed as suffering from a "low-information" problem, something the electric-car community can help to overcome.

(Two interviewed households adamantly refused to consider plug-in electric vehicles because both claimed that climate change had nothing to do with human activities. Given the political polarization around the issue in North America, that's a "low-information" problem of an entirely different sort.)

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