The recent confusion surrounding the upcoming Chevrolet Volt’s powertrain illustrates a need for consumer education on emerging electric-vehicle technologies, and auto makers are taking heed.
When General Motors Co. made public for the first time last month all the nuances of the Volt’s innovative extended-range electric-vehicle technology, it caused an uproar among pundits who claimed they were misled into thinking the car was a pure EV.
GM says the vehicle relies on a gas-powered engine for power when the battery is depleted, and it did not purposely misrepresent the Volt. But the situation outlines the importance and difficulties of explaining such advanced technologies.
“There’s no doubt the Volt launched an entire industry of different EV flavors,” says GM spokesman Dave Darovitz. “Getting customers in the Volt for test-drives is one of the best ways to explain the vehicle.”
But while GM’s national consumer test-drive program is under way, the auto maker also has launched Twitter and Facebook sites dedicated to the Volt.
Introducing to car buyers the differences between hybrids, plug-ins and pure-EVs is an important task, but it’s not unlike what occurred when other new technologies were launched, a Nissan North America Inc. marketer says.
“If you look back 30 years ago and tried to describe an iPad or iPhone, nobody would understand,” Trisha Jung, chief marketing manager for the Nissan Leaf EV tells Ward’s.
“There’s a lot of terminology that’s common to us now, and we expect a similar evolution (with electrified vehicles). There is an insatiable demand for information.”
To help accelerate the learning curve, Nissan, which begins selling its Leaf small electric car in December, has launched a series of education initiatives. This includes setting up a dedicated Facebook page that explains the technology driving the Leaf and allows consumers to participate in chats. Nissan marketers monitor the page to answer questions.
Nissan is taking a more hands-on approach with its current rollout of the Leaf, stopping in 23 cities considered key markets, Jung says. By logging on to www.drivenissanleaf.com, consumers can sign up for a test drive, which includes jaunts on closed circuits, as well as public roads.
A dedicated microsite, which can be accessed through www.nissanusa.com, also has been established.
“The extensiveness of the website is beyond anything we’ve ever done for a vehicle,” Jung says, noting it clearly notes the Leaf’s 100-mile (161-km) range. “We let them know how it fits into their lifestyle.”
Ford Motor Co. joined the industry’s education initiative with the recently launched www.fordvehicles.com/technology/electric/, which features video, text and diagrams to help consumers understand the differences in electrified-vehicle technologies.
Over the next two years, the auto maker will introduce the Transit Connect EV commercial van, Ford Focus EV passenger car, two next-generation lithium-ion powered hybrids and a plug-in hybrid.
“Based on research we’ve done, one-quarter of customers rank themselves as having a high knowledge of EVs,” David Finnegan, Ford marketing manager-hybrid vehicles, tells Ward’s. “We think there’s a lot of interest out there and an opportunity to help customers understand the spectrum of the technologies.”
While getting all consumers up to speed on electrified-vehicle technology is challenging, some questions posed on Ford’s Facebook page indicate car buyers are more technologically savvy than some may think.
According to Finnegan, one of the most commonly asked questions concerns battery chemistry.
In previous hybrids, Ford employed nickel-metal hydride batteries, but now plans to switch to the more-advanced Li-ion formula.
“From our perspective, we see there’s a lot of excitement for this technology,” Finnegan says. “But (there is) not a lot of opportunity for customers to get this information. And that’s why we want to help them.”