Alternative-fuel Vehicles Don’t Turn Consumers On

The general media loves alternative-fuel vehicles. Hardly a week goes by without another boosterish story about the day when we’ll no longer have to buy gasoline. At the same time, the federal government is on the verge of formalizing stringent Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations that, by the way, put the onus on carmakers to sell them, so auto manufacturers are more eager than ever to build a market for alternative-propulsion vehicles. If they want to compete in the American market in future years, they are almost compelled to. So, as 2012 is set to dawn, the eyes of the auto industry are increasingly turning to alternative-fuel vehicles. A substantial number of them will be introduced at this week’s Los Angeles Auto Show, but the multibillion-dollar question is: Does the general public want to buy them? Increasingly, it seems the answer might be “No.”

A recent survey conducted by a major third-party automotive website points to this possibility quite clearly. Asked point-blank, “Would you ever consider purchasing or leasing a hybrid?” a resounding 45 percent of respondents replied, “No, I would never consider a hybrid.” In contrast, only 14 percent responded, “Yes, I am thinking about it.” While 14 percent sounds like a decently high number, saying “I’m thinking about it” is a long way from saying “I will definitely buy one.”

So the public is not really interested in buying a hybrid, but what about other green vehicles? There are other technologies that might break the hold that petroleum has on us. Well, it seems they’re not too thrilled with those either. Asked the question, “Which new high-mileage/green tech vehicle are you most excited about?” only 7 percent of readers picked hybrids and plug-in hybrids; full electrics drew an 8-percent response and, oddly, hydrogen/hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles drew a 15-percent positive response -- just as much as EV and hybrids combined. Of course, fuel cell vehicles aren’t even available for sale and probably won’t be for years. The big winners were essentially conventional vehicles. Clean diesels drew 20 percent excitement, and 40-plus-mpg vehicles garnered 32 percent. Some 18 percent, no doubt curmudgeons, said they were excited by “none of the above.”

So what’s the takeaway? The news media might believe that consumers want information about green vehicles. In fact, consumers might really want that info. But what audience members have collectively heard so far about alternative-fuel vehicles has not persuaded them that these cars are something a large number of people want to buy. A great deal of the initial consumer interest in alternative-propulsion vehicles might have stemmed as much from consumers’ desire to drive in the carpool lane as from solidly held environmental concerns. Equally important, as gasoline-engine technology improves efficiency and ups their mpg performance, consumers will see even fewer reasons to buy green vehicles.