Globally we’re in the midst of an exciting transition to electric vehicles and there are signs of the change everywhere you look with cities, states and utilities all helping to promote this transition.
Unfortunately, the shift is happening slower in the US than in other places. In Norway more than 50% of vehicles sold in December 2017 were battery electrics or plug-in hybrids, while the EV market share in the US hovers around 1%.
Electrifying transportation is critical to addressing climate change. Our transportation systems are responsible for 28% of US greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Switching to electric vehicles (while also decarbonizing our electricity) will reduce these emissions.
Encouraging Electric Vehicles
So how do we grow that 1% of market sales? Some commentators have suggested that the key is higher gas prices but economics are only part of the solution: motivating people to adopt a new technology also requires insights from the behavioral sciences.
Here at Cool Choices we think about behaviors all the time so it’s no surprise that we’re thinking about how to motivate people to choose electric vehicles. Our mantra is to make change fun, social and easy—those principles definitely apply here.
When we advocate for making change fun we mean that people gravitate toward actions that feel good. Good feelings can come from a variety of sources—having fun, feeling proud, etc. Some people really like being the first in their group to have a new technology—think about the person in your office who always has the latest phone, for example. For those folks electric vehicles are a cool new technology and often their brand of choice is Tesla, which is seen as the coolest of the cool EVs, but other auto manufacturers can leverage cool too. I drive a Nissan Leaf and its acceleration is zippier than any internal combustion car I’ve ever owned—which is also pretty cool for me. To engage people in EVs we need to talk more about how fun these cars are to drive.
One good way to share the fun of driving EVs is via events where people can take no-pressure test drives. For most folks I know, going to a car dealership to look at cars is stressful and not fun—which is why public test drives are so effective. Increasingly we see utilities and other groups hosting no-pressure test drives at community events. These efforts are especially effective when done in conjunction with existing events—having some cars on exhibit at the county fair, for example, because you reach people who might not seek out EVs. At these events people can talk to EV owners, drive an EV and, yes, have some fun learning about this new option.
Events are also an opportunity to make electric vehicles social. Humans are social creatures and when it comes to making decisions, we take a lot of cues from the people around us. So it’s important to get people talking about EVs if you want to grow the market. Events are one strategy, and definitely social media is another—I’ve seen utilities do some nice videos showcasing local EV owners and there are a myriad of social media groups people can join to talk with owners.
Make Change Visible
Social influence works best, of course, when it’s visible. If my peers are taking action in secret, it’s unlikely to influence me. Similarly, if I don’t notice the actions, well, I don’t notice them. And that’s a challenge for EVs. While some people are really into cars and notice every EV on the road, many of us—me included—are more oblivious. Honestly for me most cars look alike—I’d be hard pressed to distinguish one SUV from another. And that means I don’t notice EVs on the road until someone else points them out. To influence people like me, EV advocates need to make electric vehicles more visible.
Visibility matters because right now lots of folks aren’t sure an EV would work for them. Showing people that others just like them are driving EVs is a really important social signal.
EVs need to be visible at car dealerships too. Here in the Midwest, it can be a challenge to find EVs in car lots and that’s a problem because it affects how easy it is to choose an EV. When the vehicle’s not on the lot, it’s not easy to buy.
There’s been a good deal of discussion among EV advocates about the challenges with car dealerships. Some dealers aren’t enthusiastic about the transition to EVs because it will affect their business model. This is, of course, frustrating but we prefer to focus on the positive—other dealers are doing a great job of showcasing EVs and those are the dealers who are likely to still be around in ten years when EVs are mainstream.
Cities, states and utilities that are promoting EVs need to recognize the dealers who are leading. We talk a lot about the power of positive reinforcement. If advocates recognize the dealers who are making it easy to buy EVs then other dealers will follow and the recognized dealers will continue to do a great job.
Dealers need to understand that the current crop of EV buyers are early adopters—typically well-informed folks who are excited about the transition to EVs. These savvy buyers deserve equally savvy sellers—a salesperson who’s excited and informed about EV technology.
Emphasize the Ease of Electric Vehicles
Beyond the sales process there’s a lot that makes electric vehicles easier than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, beginning with maintenance. EVs have far fewer moving parts than ICEs, which means there’s less that can go wrong and there’s less to maintain. No more oil changes, no fuel injectors or catalytic converters…there’s far less to worry about.
But what about range issues? We hear a lot about range anxiety so that must be a big problem, right? Wrong! While it’s important that cities and states continue to build out charging infrastructure, it’s not the case that you’ve got EVs stranded by the road today. The average person drives less than 40 miles per day and most EVs on the market can travel more than 120 miles on a charge—which means range isn’t an issue for most of us most of the time. More, there’s good evidence that the vast majority of people charge at home, overnight, just as they charge their phones and other devices…which is pretty easy.
Range issues are even less concerning for commercial fleets where there are predictable routes and it’s easy to install chargers at both ends of the route.
Unfortunately, all the talk about range anxiety undermines efforts to promote EVs—people presume this is a big issue when it’s not. Just as we advise advocates that negative norms can reinforce bad behaviors (e.g., “everyone leaves on their computer” means everyone will now), focusing on range anxiety makes it worse not better.
Accelerating EV adoption in the US is a great way to accelerate action on climate change. We’re excited to see a variety of states, local governments and utilities promoting EVs and we hope everyone’s efforts are successful. As you promote EVs, though, remember that you’re influencing humans to adopt a new behavior and that you’ll get the best results if you make that change fun, social and easy.
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