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.)

2015 Nissan Leaf

2015 Nissan Leaf

So the first key takeaway from the report is that in 2013, a bit more than one-third of new car buyers in English-speaking Canada were willing to consider plug-ins.

They overwhelmingly preferred the concept of plug-in hybrids, and their interest rose modestly when the price premium fell (which, in the real world, would mean incentives).

From 30 percent to 1 percent

Despite 32 percent of BC's new-car buyers being willing to consider plug-ins, the researchers concluded that in 2020, electric-car market share (among new vehicles) could be as low as 1 percent.

2015 Chevrolet Volt

2015 Chevrolet Volt

For plug-ins to reach their full market potential--the one-third who were willing to consider them--a variety of constraints would need to be addressed.

  • Home charging access: Lack of home charging reduces market potential to 18 percent. About one-third of respondents had the ability to install Level 2 outlets; another one-third had access to Level 1. Improving outlet access is largely a matter of public policy.
  • Vehicle type and dealership availability: Reduces market potential to 10 percent. Not everyone buys sedans and crossovers, and not all dealerships promote their electric offerings. These factors can be influenced by corporate decisions: As plug-in SUV's, trucks and even minivans arrive, and dealerships adopt each others' best practices for selling electric vehicles, consumer uptake should rise.
  • Make and model variety: Reduces market potential to 4 percent. Many consumers are loyal to specific car brands, making them unlikely to go electric unless that company offers a plug-in version of a specific model they're considering. This also falls under the corporate-policy umbrella.
  • Lack of familiarity: Reduces market potential to 1 percent. Only about one in five respondents said they were familiar with electric vehicles, which hugely constrains the potential buyer pool. Public and corporate policies can help, but again the electric-car community may be best poised to familiarize mainstream buyers with the real-world applications of the technology.

Those mainstream buyers were studied in 2013, and a lot has happened in the past two years, so perhaps electric vehicles' upper market potential should be higher.

Eaton DC fast charger at Surrey Museum in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada

Eaton DC fast charger at Surrey Museum in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada

That said, however, purchase incentives will expire eventually, raising purchase costs and shrinking the market accordingly--though, with luck, not until plug-in prices have fallen due to lower battery costs and economies of scale.

The second lesson, then, is that access to charging, product variety, and public education are key to boosting electric vehicle sales toward their full potential.

Not a surprising conclusion--but at least now it's been peer-reviewed.

Information underload

Enthusiasts sometimes forget that the general public--and in your contributor's case, his ever-patient spouse--doesn't share their passion.

With that in mind, the Canadian Plug-in Electric Vehicle Study is a bracing wake-up call.

2015 Toyota Prius Liftback

2015 Toyota Prius Liftback

Some context is provided by the Toyota Prius: 18 years after it first went on sale in Japan, only one-third of mainstream respondents judged themselves familiar with the world's most popular hybrid car.

Indeed, only 18 percent of mainstream car buyers correctly said that the regular Prius runs exclusively on gasoline. (Perhaps they know that the Prius uses a battery for regenerative braking, and think it can be plugged in as well?)

In that light, it's not surprising that a few short years after their introduction, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf continue to face an uphill battle in British Columbia.

2015 Nissan Leaf

2015 Nissan Leaf

Respondents' familiarity with those vehicles ran at 19 percent and 14 percent, respectively. About a third of mainstream buyers correctly identified the fuels for the two vehicles.

Among plug-in pioneers, familiarity ratings for the Prius, Volt and Leaf ran to 80 percent.

While almost all the early adopters identified the correct fuels for the Leaf (99 percent) and Volt (90 percent), they too had a bit of trouble with the Prius. Only two-thirds (68 percent) correctly identified the hybrid's fuel: gasoline only.

The study's third big conclusion, then, is that potential plug-in purchasers don't know enough about electric vehicles to know how well one might meet their needs.

Bringing mainstream car buyers' familiarity with electric cars up to the same levels as the pioneer / early-adopter group could expand the market fourfold.

Electric-car charging information from BC Hydro, West Coast Green Highway, British Columbia, Canada

Electric-car charging information from BC Hydro, West Coast Green Highway, British Columbia, Canada

And also...

Other findings from the Canadian report's 26-page executive summary include:

- Based on the marginal emissions associated with increased electricity consumption, electric vehicles are cleaner than hybrids, even in the coal-powered province of Alberta;

- Only about two-thirds of charging events occur at home in British Columbia, where electric vehicle owners benefit from extensive public charging infrastructure; studies in other regions report a much higher proportion

British Columbia [image: Wikimedia Commons]

British Columbia [image: Wikimedia Commons]

- Leaf owners were most likely to view their vehicles were environmental and responsible, while Tesla owners were most likely to think of their vehicles as attractive, intelligent, sporty, exotic, powerful, and an indicator of personal success. (Is it any wonder the company's customer-satisfaction scores are so high?)

Future research plans include quantifying how electric cars reduce regional greenhouse-gas emissions over time, and expanding the plug-in electric vehicle sales forecast model to other Canadian provinces and other countries.

The researchers also plan to evaluate the relative effectiveness of different supply- and demand-based policy measures, e.g. zero-emission vehicle mandates, financial incentives, public charging infrastructure, and availability of outlets in the garages of multi-unit residential buildings.

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