Despite record oil prices in most countries and concerns about global pollution levels, awareness and adoption of alternative fuel engine technologies are fairly low, according to a recent Synovate survey. Even direct injection diesel engines are an unknown for many consumers outside Western Europe, with one-third of those surveyed never having heard of such technology.
Synovate surveyed 4,568 respondents in the United States, Canada, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Russia and Morocco, probing their familiarity with, usage of and openness toward hybrid electric, direct injection diesel and alternative fuel source vehicles.
Globally, hybrid electric vehicles are the least familiar to consumers, with only 1 percent of those surveyed currently or previously owning such a vehicle. However, consumers in the US and Canada are more likely to consider hybrids over any other alternative to conventional engines. This technology is least familiar in Malaysia and Morocco, where 50 and 45 percent of respondents respectively have never heard of this type of vehicle.
Direct injection diesel technology, a dramatic improvement over its predecessor diesel technology in terms of fuel efficiency, performance and tailpipe emissions, enjoys the highest adoption, but still at a very low 5 percent among all those surveyed. This technology is most prevalent in Morocco, with 16 percent of respondents owning or having owned such a vehicle. Interestingly, for Americans this type of engine is the least familiar of the three technologies covered in the survey, with 37 percent never having heard of direct injection diesels.
"Diesel technology has improved dramatically over the last decade, as is evidenced by broad adoption in many European markets," says Scott Miller, CEO of Synovate Motoresearch. "Outside Europe, however, it is plagued by consumer familiarity with older diesel technology most typically found in pickups and commercial vehicles, which are typically loud, rough and have visible tailpipe emissions. The challenge facing diesel advocates is how to get enough newer diesels into the market to expedite the same change in perception that has taken place in Europe."
Vehicles running on alternative fuel sources such as natural gas, ethanol, methanol or bio diesel are also a mystery for many respondents, as only 2 percent have bought into this technology, with Canadians topping the list at 4 percent. While 91 percent of North Americans are familiar with this technology, by contrast 36 percent of Malaysians and Moroccans and 33 percent of Singaporeans have never heard of alternative fuel source-powered vehicles.
"Alternative fuel vehicles are typically developed in small, experimental volumes for commercial application, which is why so few retail consumers have seen or even heard of them," explains Miller, adding that the fuelling infrastructure does not exist to offer general consumers a minimally acceptable level of convenience. "This is a serious 'chicken or egg' problem for the energy and automotive industries. Manufacturers can't afford to launch vehicles that are not supported by a refuelling infrastructure, and the energy industry can't afford to build the infrastructure and wait 10 years for enough vehicles to be on the road to make it worth their investment."
What factors would prompt consumers to purchase an alternative fuel engine technology vehicle? The desire to produce less pollution comes first at 82 percent, with the need for better fuel economy a close second at 76 percent. Meanwhile, respondents who would not consider buying alternative fuel engine technology vehicles cite high cost as their main concern.
"The principal perceived benefit of most of these technologies is a reduced impact on the environment, which while important, does not tend to strongly affect individual purchase behaviour in most markets," notes Miller. "As a result, consumers have not driven the demand for such vehicles. Instead, these vehicles have been regarded as requiring the consumer to pay a higher price and make unacceptable tradeoffs in areas like performance, vehicle size and design."
But hybrid vehicles may be leading a change in consumer attitude in some markets where they are being promoted aggressively by well-respected manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda. And the required sacrifices are disappearing, with some new hybrids actually boasting better acceleration than the vehicles’ conventional engine options.
"The environment is becoming increasingly important to the consumer," concludes Miller. "Now they have an option to 'do the right thing' for society without giving up the things that matter to them as individual vehicle buyers."