SAE Hybrid Vehicle Tech: Anthropology Tells Us Who Buys Hybrid Cars

San Diego--Yesterday's most intriguing presentation came right up front, and it came from an unlikely discipline to boot. The goal was simply to answer the question: Who really buys hybrid cars, anyway?


Anthropologists aren't the usual presenters at Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) events. But research anthropologist Tom Turrentine, director of the UC-Davis Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center, kept the audience rapt as he summarized the results of 2600 surveys completed by hybrid buyers, along with dozens of in-person interviews.


It's common wisdom that early hybrids were bought by "green" car buyers. And the engineers in the audience acknowledged that "early adopters" love the remarkably sophisticated technology in their Priuses. But beyond that...who are the people who have taken hybrids to roughly 2% of the US market?


Before answering the question, Turrentine had to demolish a myth. "Car buyers don't calculate paybacks," he said firmly. While consumers are hardly irrational, only 10% accurately track their fuel costs. They may think they do, but when you dig down, "knowing my fuel costs" may mean stuffing receipts into the car's ashtray--or only tracking one vehicle's costs.


Instead, "meanings are what motivate hybrid buyers." The symbolic value of our vehicles is a rich area for anthropologists, who create so-called meaning maps from lengthy individual interviews to tease out what really lies behind an individual's second-costliest purchase. Most hybrid households blended three motivations: a desire for independence and control, a drive to preserve the environment, and an embrace of new technology.


"None of them had ever opened the hood," said Turrentine. "They all point to the instrumentation; it's how they understand their cars." The real-time display that shows when a hybrid runs on gasoline, when it's in electric-only mode, and how the fuel economy changes--that's the owner's window into what makes the hybrid vehicle so special.


Turrentine identified four market segments. First were the greens, and shortly thereafter the techies. No suprises there.


But the third group was less obvious; it was those buyers--across the political spectrum--for whom fuel security, or energy independence, was a high value. Turrentine related the example of an Oklahoma farmer and gun enthusiast, hardly the stereotypical hybrid buyer, who had been razzed by his peers for "buying a Democrat car" when he parked his Prius among their pickup trucks.


His comeback was simply, "Hey, I'm the one who's sticking it to the Saudis, not you guys!"


The final buyer group identified by Turrentine was "economizers," those people who most valued hybrids for their ability to reduce running costs through better fuel economy. They came into the picture somewhat later, he said--but stressed that almost all buyers fell into more than one of the four groups.


Turrentine is now studying the potential consumer acceptance of plug-in hybrids. Will owners consider it a hassle to plug in? Will plugging in wane over time? Are there easily accessible power outlets at home? At work? Will drivers expect shopping malls to provide power for their cars? The answers could be vitally important for how companies like General Motors and Toyota launch their first plug-in cars in 2010 or 2011--especially after Toyota has spent many years pointing out that while a Prius can run on electricity, it doesn't have to be plugged in.


After energetic questioning, Turrentine was followed by GM's Pete Savagian, whose "Driving the Volt" presentation returned the conference to more familiar territory. But attendees could be heard discussing Turrentine's findings at breaks and during lunch.


Sometimes anthropology makes sense for technology conferences.


I'll be posting at least daily; if any readers have specific issues they'd like me to comment on, please send me a note: J V [dot] spectrum [at] ieee [dot] org.


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