Researchers Study Consumer Attitudes Toward Clean-Fuel Cars

Bucking conventional wisdom, University of California, Davis, researchers believe that many people who buy a second car will want it to be an "ultra-clean" car, powered by alternative fuels. UC Davis engineering professor Daniel Sperling and his colleagues will test their hypothesis at a test clinic June 12-16 at the Pasadena Rose Bowl in the Los Angeles area. In the first phase of a three-year study of consumer attitudes toward alternative-fueled cars, more than 300 local residents will inspect, test drive and evaluate several alternative-fueled vehicles. Local utilities and agencies are supplying the study's vehicles, fueled by electricity, compressed natural gas, methanol and a combination of gasoline and electricity. "The conventional thinking in government and industry is that only a few ecofreaks are likely to buy electric cars," said Sperling, acting director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis and a nationally recognized expert on alternative fuels. "We think that's wrong." The test drive site -- the Los Angeles Basin -- is the "Super Bowl of Smog," according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The air quality is nine times worse than anywhere else in the nation outside California. The basin is also the world's largest single market for gasoline, according to the air quality district. Vehicles produce about two-thirds of the total air pollution. Air quality management agencies are counting on people to replace their gasoline-fueled rigs with cleaner electric or compressed natural gas cars, but several studies have suggested that is easier said than done. To be effective in cleaning up air pollution, alternative-fueled cars must attract a certain number of consumers who would otherwise drive a traditional gasoline-fueled car. "None of these are going to go anywhere unless people buy them," said Thomas Turrentine, a postgraduate research assistant at UC Davis who is coordinating the study with Sperling. "We don't think we can predict market penetration knowing what we know now. The purpose of this study isn't so much an evaluation of technology as it is an evaluation of consumers' response to technology." Combining theories of consumer behavior from the fields of economics, sociology, psychology and marketing, the UC Davis researchers predict alternative-fueled vehicles will appeal to people who like to experiment with new technology and to "green" consumers highly motivated by environmental concerns. Also, some people may find that alternative-fueled vehicles fit their lifestyles and driving needs as well as did their old traditional gasoline-powered car. Finally, the researchers predict, because relatively few cars will be available at first, they are likely to become status symbols for public personalities and the wealthy. Sperling and Turrentine believe this test drive clinic is the first public hands-on study of its size and scale of consumers' attitudes toward alternative-fuel cars. "People need to be immersed in the decision process in order to give accurate answers as to how they are likely to behave," Sperling said. "This project will provide state-of-the-art findings on the future of the alternative fuels market in Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas of California." Three hundred drivers from the Pasadena area participating in the study represent four market segments. There will be two volunteer groups: • 50 environmentally conscious drivers, and • 50 independent repair shop owners from the Foothill chapter of the Automotive Service Council. Three additional groups were recruited for the study: • 50 drivers with short commutes (less than 20 miles round-trip), • 50 people who work at home or are retired, and • 150 consumers, a random sample from the general population as a control group. All participants have annual household incomes over $50,000 and own at least two vehicles. The researchers want to identify the consumer groups that are most attracted to the benefits of cleaner-burning vehicles and that are also most willing to adapt to unfamiliar attributes of the different alternative-fueled vehicles, such as home refueling, reduced miles between fuel stops, less noise and different engine sound, more or less power, and better or worse safety characteristics when compared to gasoline-powered cars. Participants will try several alternative-fueled vehicles, including those powered by methanol, electric and compressed natural gas. (The researchers selected vehicles that best represent the technology likely to enter the market through mass production in the mid- to late 1990s.) Participants also will be given promotional literature and will visually inspect, test drive and refuel each vehicle. Researchers will interview participants immediately after each test drive. In addition, participants will be asked to fill out a questionnaire that identifies several types of incentives being considered to promote alternative-fueled vehicles. They will be asked to comment on which incentives they consider to be particularly attractive and why. Some clinic participants will be recruited in a random sample for follow-up focus groups and in-depth interviews about if and why they might purchase an alternative-fueled car. This is the first phase of a three-year study funded by the California Institute for Energy Efficiency. CIEE is a statewide collaboration of electric and gas utilities, energy agencies, the University of California and other research institutions. The results of this study are expected to be released in a report this fall. Sperling heads the Committee on Alternative Transportation for the Transportation Research Board, a research unit of the National Academy of Sciences. His most recent book is "Alternative Transportation Fuels: An Environmental and Energy Solution."

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Andy Fell, Research news (emphasis: biological and physical sciences, and engineering), 530-752-4533,