Green shoots: Using digital to forge consumer faith in electric vehicles

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Climate change has slipped from the front page. From the highpoint of the green debate a decade ago, media interest in the future of the planet has diminished of late.

From the initial splash made by Toyota’s Prius hybrid electric vehicle – which has accumulated around five million sales since its introduction in 1997 – the tidal wave of electric and hybrid car purchases has also failed to materialise.

Led by models such as the Nissan LEAF and BMW i3, it had been predicted that global electric vehicles (EV) sales would reach 10% of the industry total by 2020, but this growth has stalled. A US target of a million EV sales by the end of 2015 looks unlikely to be reached; meanwhile, only an estimated 14,000 have been sold to date in Germany.

So what is the problem? Are car companies, under pressure from governments and the green lobby, producing products that consumers do not desire? In the UK, at least, there is some cause for optimism. According to Mintel’s ‘UK Car Review: An Insight into Brand Preferences and Market Trends’, over a quarter of respondents (26%) agree with the statement that “environmental concerns are important when choosing a car”.

Some 29% of British car owners said they would be interested in selecting a hybrid car for their next vehicle purchase, while drivers in London score even higher in their environmental concerns when picking a car (32%). Female drivers are more likely to consider the environment in the car buying process than their male counterparts, and a far higher proportion of women desire a car to match their lifestyle needs (57%). Some momentum does seem to be growing. Europe’s EV market grew by 37% last year, though electric cars only make up 0.6% of overall new car registrations. In the UK, buoyed by government subsidies and tax exemptions on such products, drivers registered 35,000 electric and hybrid cars in the first half of 2015 – up 350% year-on-year.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) also claims that the UK beat its CO2 emissions targets for the previous year, with the average new car in 2014 posting CO2 emissions 4.2% below the European Union’s target of 130g/km.

In combination with government policy, the automotive industry is leading the way in facilitating lower emissions and ensuring a greener motoring future. However, steps must still be taken to accelerate the rate at which hybrids and EVs are purchased.

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One approach, embraced by brands such as Tesla and Toyota, is to open up their patents to rival firms, in the hope of growing the overall market. Tesla’s chief executive Elon Musk last year pledged to unlock the company’s entire patent portfolio and treat it as ‘open source’ information for anyone with positive intentions.

Musk said he wanted to remove “intellectual property landmines” inhibiting the development of EV technology, and that the market would benefit from a “common, rapidly-evolving” platform. In the words of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Aaron Levie, the CEO of file-storing company Box Inc, Tesla wishes to be the best product in a large industry, not simply the only product in a niche one.

Toyota followed suit earlier this year with the decision to offer unrestricted access to thousands of hydrogen fuel cell patents, as part of its plan to push the technology as an alternative to pure EVs. Its Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is due to go into production later this year, and the Japanese marque hopes to grow the category with the open approach to patents.

The biggest obstacle for manufacturers to tackle, however, is that of “range anxiety” – the fears harboured by many drivers that they will run out of juice outside the range of an EV charging point.

Significant work has gone into bolstering battery life times and improving the charging infrastructure across the UK. According to government figures, there are around 7,000 charge points in the country across 3,000 locations – 500 of which are ‘super-chargers’, offering a 50% charge in little over quarter of an hour.

Yet, for consumers unwilling and unable to take much time out of their day, the idea of planning a charge session in excess of 30 minutes is extremely undesirable. Industry experts have also bemoaned the lack of comprehensive information around charge point locations, and whether they are readily available for all motorists.

Digital technology cannot solve the challenge of infrastructure. What it can do, however, is boost confidence and brand preference by helping customers to manage challenges around planning and range fear. Services like range planners and information portals about charge point queue times would be a good start.

A sizeable minority of drivers in the UK and beyond are still open to considering environmental concerns when purchasing a new car. And the best way to cultivate this demand is by getting the EV experience as close as possible to the freedom offered by petrol cars. Achieve this, and all things green will be back on the front pages.

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