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Marketing electric vehicles is part psychology, part education says Ford exec

August 1, 2011

This is a re-post of a blog I did for

Educating consumers about electric vehicles is like being a psychologist, says Debra Hotaling, manager of Western region communications for Ford Motor Co.  Hotaling was a speaker at a July 25-27 conference in Los Angeles on promoting consumer confidence in EVs. (Full disclosure: I was also a speaker.)

Ford will start deliveries of its battery-electric Focus later this year and the automaker is spending a lot of time trying to parse consumer attitudes towards electric vehicles. One thing it has discovered:  People are really struggling to understand what the parameters are around an EV, said Hotaling. For example, they ask questions such as “Will my car short out if I drive through deep water?”

Living here in California, which is pretty much EV central (My running club was running up in the hills of Pacific Palisades a few weeks ago.  Three cars along the curb: Two Pruii, one Volt.), we forget that that EVs are sort of like flying saucers to a good portion of U.S. consumers.

Hotaling was a good balance to speakers such as EV zealot Paul Scott, vice president of Plug In America,  who can’t imagine why everyone doesn’t want to own an EV.

In fact, many consumers don’t really have a good grasp of the basics of an electric vehicle, says Hotaling.  So Ford spends a lot of time “myth busting,” she says.  Figuring out how to sell EVs to consumers is pretty important to Ford given that it has declared that from 10 to 25% of its portfolio will be electrified by 2020.

One thing is clear, said Hotaling. People won’t settle for a de-contented car, even if it is electric. They want all the goodies they can get on a traditional gas-powered vehicle. And, they want to car to look good.   “You can’t just jam this down people’s throats,” she says. “People won’t buy this if it is not a car they can love.”

Hotaling also says that a business model that relies on government incentives is not a good business model.  She may have been reading a recently-released study by Harvard’s Henry Lee and Grant Lovellette, “Will Electric Cars Transform the U.S. Vehicle Market? An Analysis of the Key Determinants.”

I like reading these academic studies. They can be dry, but they are refreshingly straightforward and generally free of biases. This report is skeptical. One of its conclusions:  “Significant penetration of electric cars into the U.S. marketplace will only occur if the vehicles are competitive with conventional vehicles, not only on a cost basis, but also on an attribute

I asked Hotaling if it made automakers such as Ford nervous to sink lots of resources into a technology that had an uncertain future. She said that by using the same global platforms for traditional and electric vehicles, Ford was reducing the risk.

That strategy also allows it to come out with a wider selection of vehicles with some form of electric drive train.  “We don’t have to bet the farm on
one car,” says Hotaling.

Of course, there are many EV makers out there that are basically betting the farm on one car. The travails of Norway’s Think, which just got a third lease on life when a Russian investor agree to buy it, may be a sign of what awaits other small EV makers.

Will the big OEs be the only ones left standing in the EV segment a decade from now? I fear the answer is yes, but hope I am wrong.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Scott permalink
    August 1, 2011 7:55 am

    Just curious, is an “EV zealot” a good thing, or a bad thing?

    • August 1, 2011 4:01 pm

      Depends on how one feels about EVs, I guess!

      • Paul Scott permalink
        August 1, 2011 4:40 pm

        So, how do you feel about EVs? Do you see them as a good thing, bad thing, or inconsequential?

  2. August 1, 2011 11:28 pm

    I think they are good, but not a primary car candidate for most people until the battery technology vastly improves. It doesn’t matter if most people drive far less than the range of a battery in a day. What matters is what people say they want in an EV. And they want more range….

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