Future Consumers Weigh in on Hybrid Vehicles: A Look at College Students' Opinions and Knowledge

Abstract: 

In order to gauge the attitudes of college-age students toward hybrid vehicles, the researcher conducted a series of surveys in the spring of 2007. The surveys focused on both the students’ factual knowledge of hybrid technology and their personal opinions regarding hybrid vehicles currently on the market. The study revealed that attitudes held by the students differed between men and women and by age. The data also point to ways that hybrid vehicles might be more effectively marketed to younger consumer groups in order to increase use of this new technology.

Table of Contents: 

    Introduction

    In this modern day and age, it’s hard to imagine anything threatening our way of life. However, with a current world population just over 6.5 billion and a finite carrying capacity, we are living in a world where resources are being depleted at a fast rate. The depletion of oil is one of the biggest concerns facing the world right now. Developed countries, like the United States and England, need oil in greater quantities than ever before. There is also the added strain that rapidly growing countries such as China and India are placing on the oil supply. Alternative energy resources, although available, are not in widespread use. But why not? Solar power, hydropower, and hybrid vehicles are just some of the many new technologies that could help reduce our dependency on oil. Hybrid vehicles use less oil, pollute less, and, in short, would help combat our oil problem.

    Literature Review

    The development of automotive vehicles made the development of modern society possible.1 Hybrid means that propulsion energy comes from two or more energy sources.2 An electric hybrid relies on a battery and fuel to supply energy for propulsion.3 Figure 1 illustrates how the two energy sources work together.

    The fuel is converted into energy that propels the wheels into motion.4 That motion in turn propels the passengers and chassis along. Conversely, the electric (battery) motor acts the same way. However, rather than needing refueling, the battery is recharged through regenerative breaking and power from the fuel source. Regenerative breaking is the storing of energy into the battery cells from the inertia that is created with every touch of the breaks, as explained to me by Dr. Stuart Birnbaum (personal communication, Spring 2007), professor of Geology at UTSA, who has owned a hybrid vehicle for three years.

    Alternative energies and hybrid cars appear to be the best option we have to ensure the quality of living we currently maintain, but there are many drawbacks. Through the research I have completed and articles I have read, I have learned much about hybrid cars and both their positive and negative features. To begin to understand hybrids, it is appropriate to consider how hybrids started and why they received little attention for over half a century.

    Electric vehicles have been around longer than most people realize. In the years 1890 to 1916, they were quite common in cities in the United States.5 GMC had one of the first ever battery/fuel-powered trucks using a lead-acid battery.6 At that time, vehicle technology was very new, and both gasoline-powered vehicles and hybrid vehicles were vying for the edge in the newly emerging automotive market. Eventually gasoline-powered vehicles won out, due ironically to the invention of the electrical starter motor to replace the hand crank.7

    The 1960s were a time of radical change, and interest in hybrid vehicles was renewed. However, technology to make such vehicles economical has been slow coming. The technology of hybrid vehicles in the 1990s was comparable to that of the early 1900s, with some obvious advances.

    Today we have hybrid vehicles that are capable of improving fuel efficiency and also producing lower emissions than conventional vehicles.8 An electric vehicle, which eliminates the need for fuel and relies solely on a battery, is what I envision hybrids becoming as technology improves. Electric hybrids convert extra energy into electricity and use it to help power the electric motor.9 Current electric vehicles are still too limited in range before the batteries need recharging.10 It is difficult to recharge batteries currently because there are limited locations with the capacity to recharge, and recharging is a time-consuming process.11

    As great as the potential is for hybrids, there are several drawbacks because technology has not advanced as fast as we need it to. Even though the battery recharges itself while the vehicle is running on fuel, the overall life span of the battery is significantly shorter than in a nonhybrid car and cannot be replaced as easily in the home.

    On top of the issues mentioned earlier, the cost of hybrids is still very high due to the new technology that is being used in them.12 High costs discourage people from buying hybrids, thus keeping the costs high. With such a high cost, the technology will improve very slowly.

    Some suggestions to improve attitudes toward hybrids include the implementation by the federal government of "tax credits and other incentives to encourage rapid production and consumer purchase.…”13 With a lower cost, the technology could flourish and improve so that electric hybrids could become economical. Realistically, a drive range of 80 km would satisfy more than 80 percent of car use,14 but it will take some time to educate the public that this is the case.15

    Methodology

    Based on this knowledge, I developed my research to discover what college-age students know and believe about hybrid vehicles. I chose college students, eighteen to twenty-five years old, because they are the emerging consumers and the fate of our planet is in their hands.

    I hypothesized that the general population would not have much knowledge about hybrid vehicles. Males would claim to possess more knowledge than females would claim. Finally, I hypothesized that the older the respondent is, the more knowledgeable they would be, and I thought that the younger respondents would have the least knowledge when comparing age-groups.

    To test my hypotheses, over a four-week period I handed out 160 surveys to four classes at the University of North Texas: an Honors course, an upper-level geography course, and two core classes that students take to satisfy UNT’s general education requirement. Each survey contained twenty Likert items, asking students to rate their degree of agreement with each item on a five-point scale, including “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Neither,” “Disagree,” and “Strongly Disagree.”

    Results

    First, I looked at the data as a whole: what did all 160 students think they knew? About 65 percent said they did not know anything about the mechanics of hybrid vehicles. This leads me to conclude that while almost all, roughly 92 percent, believe hybrids are good for the environment, they do not know why.

    Among the perceived disadvantages of hybrid vehicles, one is that the greatest number of respondents said that their dream car did not come in a hybrid option. The majority of respondents stated they had no opinion on the length of the total life of the battery (71%) or how long a battery takes to charge (79%), from which I infer as they do not know. This indicates that education and information about hybrids is not freely accessed by the average person. As a whole, the greatest surprise was that 61 percent said that they would buy a hybrid and enjoy driving one, as shown in Figure 2. This surprised me, considering that most know little to nothing about hybrid technology.

    Whereas 63 percent of respondents believe that hybrid vehicle technology is always improving, 48 percent did not know if the technology is more advanced than our current form of vehicle technology. Even though hybrids have existed since the early 1900s, 53 percent were under the impression that hybrid technology is a relatively recent innovation. Despite this, 77 percent are under the correct assumption that hybrids get better gas mileage than single-engine cars. Refer to Figure 3 for males and Figure 4 for females.

    While 77 percent of those surveyed believe there is a real need for hybrid technology and that it would be useful for city or business fleet vehicle use, 58 percent did not know if hybrids produce enough horsepower, as shown in Figure 6. In recognizing that it would be a useful fleet vehicle, 68 percent said that hybrids would be a good investment for a company. Opinions split almost down the middle about whether or not hybrid vehicles cost too much, with 51 percent believing that hybrid vehicles were too expensive. Keeping that in mind, a majority (roughly 59%) believe that owning a hybrid will save money in the long run.

    In comparison of male responses in Figure 3 and female responses in Figure 4, 85 percent of females admitted that they did not know about the mechanics of hybrids; by comparison, 71 percent of men admit they did not know how hybrids worked. Although they did not know much about hybrid technology, more men than women reported that they understood the technology and capabilities of hybrids. For the history of hybrid technology, both men and women were equally mistaken in assuming hybrid technology was a recent development. Another item that both men and women knew nothing of was the length of life of a hybrid battery, although 16 percent of men reporting knowing slightly more. Overall, a higher percentage of men claimed to know slightly more in most of the categories than the female respondents.

    When comparing data based on age, again strictly based on knowledge, I found that only 7.5 percent of the sample were twenty-three to twenty-five years old, too small to make generalizations. The data do suggest that the younger the respondents, the more likely they were to think that hybrids can travel great distances without refueling and that the technology is constantly improving. Conversely, the older the respondents, the more likely they were to know the history of hybrid technology. The other two questions that dealt strictly with knowledge of hybrids did not exhibit any significant trends. An interesting aside I observed was that response rates from twenty-one year olds were vastly lower than the other large sample populations.

    The fact of the matter is we can push education, but only the interested will listen. Better marketing tactics need to be used to encourage the use of hybrids so that the technology can make an impact.

    As stated before, the eighteen- to twenty-five-year-old college population will begin buying cars in the near future. One hindrance to hybrid vehicles at this time is their aesthetic appeal. Most college students are not attracted to the body design or the variety of models currently available (Figure 5). Although it is an almost even split between those who believe that the body design is appealing, it is slightly skewed in favor of the negative. Another issue college-age students have with hybrids is that they believe that they do not produce enough horsepower, as shown in Figure 6. If we are ever to get hybrids in common use, these two areas of perception need to be improved upon.

    Limitations of the Study

    While conducting the survey, a few problems became apparent. Most problematic to my research was that the questions on the survey were worded in either a negative way or in an opinionated way. For example, question 19 states, “The recharge time of hybrid batteries is too long.” By saying “too long,” the question is implying a negative reaction. If the question had been worded “The recharge time of hybrid batteries is short,” a different reaction may have been recorded. Other questions with bias include “Hybrid vehicles cost too much” and “Hybrids have enough horsepower.” These can be difficult to answer because cost and horsepower have different meanings to different people. To a student who works full-time to pay all his or her bills, a $10,000 car might be expensive, but to a student who has plenty of financial support, a $50,000 car is a bit expensive. Moreover, having “enough” horsepower usually depends on how you drive.

    Another apparent problem was that the surveys were tricky to read because the columns were only labeled at the top. Toward the bottom of the page it could be difficult to differentiate between “agree” and “neither” at a quick glance.

    When discussing the results, my mentor brought up an interesting point: males tend to claim that they know more than they really do, especially when it comes to vehicles. Perhaps a better way of gathering data would be to administer a knowledge test that had right and wrong answer choices before administering the opinion survey I created. Then, by comparing the scores of the knowledge test to their opinion survey, I would get a better idea of how the results may be biased.

    Human error played a role in the recording of the answers. The fact that the columns were only labeled at the top made the surveys difficult to read, making accuracy a factor while recording the data. The same difficulties with badly marked columns caused mistakes that did not play a huge role in the data collection, but merely slowed the process.

    Conclusions

    In conclusion, as I had anticipated, men claimed that they knew more about hybrid technology than women claimed to know. I thought that the older the respondent, the more knowledgeable they would be. However, the younger respondents indicated that they knew about as much as older respondents.

    There are an overwhelming number of students who say they know nothing about the mechanics of hybrids. This outcome suggests that further efforts are needed to education the public as to how the two energy sources work together to propel the vehicle. Also, increased education is needed about how and when hybrid vehicles were developed. Perhaps a more educated consumer will present different attitudes toward hybrid vehicles and other conservation technology. Arming future consumers with plenty of accurate, balanced information should be a major teaching priority in the near future.

    None of this education will do any good, however, unless marketing practices are changed so that hybrids are more appealing to potential consumers. From my survey alone, I was able to conclude that hybrid vehicles are not considered trendy by today’s college students. Further research will have to be done in order to find what will be marketable to future consumers.

    Current marketing practices are geared toward selling but not understanding hybrid technology. When trying to gather information about hybrid vehicles, I looked at the current models available. Nothing on their Web pages gave me a greater understanding of hybrids. If I were an average consumer looking at this page (e.g., www.toyota.com/prius/index.html), why would I buy this car if I could not figure out how it works? The most basic level of knowledge (that hybrids have better fuel economy) seems to be all marketers are considering when selling these vehicles. This is largely due to the rising gas prices. Perhaps showing off the capabilities of a hybrid vehicle in commercials rather than parading the fuel efficiency would attract a larger consumer base.

    Both education and marketing need to be geared toward the current college population because they will become our future consumers. There is not one subgroup within this population that could be marketed or educated more than the others because the consumer base is virtually untouched as of now.

    Notes

    1. Mehrdad Ehsani, “Hybrid Electric Vehicles,” Modern Electric, Hybrid Electric, and Fuel Cell Vehicles, 2005. 118–120.
    2. Karl Kordesch et al., “Intermittent Use of a Low-Cost Alkaline Fuel Cell-Hybrid System for Electric Vehicles,” Journal of Power Sources 80 (1999): 190–197. Accessed http://www.electricauto.com/_pdfs/else_powjounal.pdf on September 25, 2006; Victor Wouk, “The Second Century of Electric and Hybrid Vehicles,” Vehicular Technology Conference, 1984. 34th IEEE 34 (21–23 May 1984): 183–90. IEEE Xplore Database (accessed October 23, 2006).
    3. Wouk, “The Second Century,” 183–90.
    4. Ehsani, “Hybrid Electric Vehicles,” 118–120.
    5. Wouk, “The Second Century,” 183–90.
    6. Kaushik Rajashekara, “History of Electric Vehicles in General Motors,” IEEE Transactions on Industry Applications 30:4 (July/August 1994): 897–904. IEEE Xplore Database (October 23, 2006).
    7. Wouk, “The Second Century,” 183–90.
    8. Massyoshi Kanai, “Media’s Coverage of the Hybrid Prius in Japan,” Accessed http://nature.berkeley.edu/classes/es196/projects/2004final/Kanai.pdf, 1–15. on October 23, 2006.
    9. Kanai, “Media’s Coverage,” 1–15.
    10. Kenneth Kurani, Daniel Sperling, Thomas Turrentine, “The Marketability of Electric Vehicles,” Battery Conference on Applications and Advances 11 (1996): 153–8. IEEE Xplore Database (accessed October 2, 2006); Rajashekara, “History,” 897–904.
    11. Kurani, “Marketability,” 153–8; Rajashekara, “History,” 897–904; Wouk, “The Second Century,” 183–90.
    12. Kordesch, et al., “Intermittent Use,” 190–197; Rajashekara, “History,” 897–904; Wouk, “The Second Century,” 183–90.
    13. Willie D. Jones, “Take This Car and PLUG IT,” IEEE Spectrum (July 2005): 10–3. IEEE Xplore Database (accessed October 23, 2006).
    14. Wouk, “The Second Century,” 183–90.
    15. Kanai, “Media’s Coverage,” 1–15.

    Bibliography

    • Ehsani, Mehrdad. “Hybrid Electric Vehicles,” Modern Electric, Hybrid Electric, and Fuel Cell Vehicles, 2005. 118–120.
    • Jones, Willie D. “Take This Car and PLUG IT,” IEEE Spectrum (July 2005): 10–3. IEEE Xplore Database (accessed October 23, 2006).
    • Kanai, Massayoshi. “Media’s Coverage of the Hybrid Prius in Japan” Accessed http://www.unt.edu/honors/eaglefeather/images/2007/Obregon/ObregonFig6.jpg, 1-15 on October 23, 2006.
    • Kordesch, Karl et al., “Intermittent Use of a Low-Cost Alkaline Fuel Cell-Hybrid System for Electric Vehicles,” Journal of Power Sources 80 (1999): 190–197.
    • Kurani, Kenneth, Sperling, Daniel, Turrentine, Thomas. “The Marketability of Electric Vehicles,” Battery Conference on Applications and Advances 11 (1996): 153–8. IEEE Xplore Database (accessed October 2, 2006).
    • Rajashekara, Kaushik. “History of Electric Vehicles in General Motors,” IEEE Transactions on Industry Applications 30:4 (July/August 1994): 897–904. IEEE Xplore Database (October 23, 2006).
    • Wouk, Victor. “The Second Century of Electric and Hybrid Vehicles,” Vehicular Technology Conference, 1984. 34th IEEE 34 (21–23 May 1984): 183–90. IEEE Xplore Database (accessed October 23, 2006).

    Figure 1: Model of Energy Use in Hybrid Cars

    Figure 1. Model of Energy Use in Hybrid Cars

    Figure 2: Percentage of Respondents Indicating they Would Buy a Hybrid Car

    Figure 2. Percentage of Respondents Indicating they Would Buy a Hybrid Car

    Figure 3: Percentage of Male Respondents Reporting Agreement or Disagreement with Knowledge Items

    Figure 3. Percentage of Male Respondents Reporting Agreement or Disagreement with Knowledge Items

    Figure 4: Percentage of Female Respondents Reporting Agreement or Disagreement with Knowledge Items

    Figure 4. Percentage of Female Respondents Reporting Agreement or Disagreement with Knowledge  Items

    Figure 5: Percentage of Male and Female Respondents Agreeing or Disagreeing that Body Design of Hybrid Vehicles Is Visually Appealing

    Figure 5. Percentage of Male and Female Respondents Agreeing or Disagreeing that Body Design of Hybrid Vehicles Is Visually Appealing

    Figure 6: Percentage of Male and Female Respondents Agreeing or Disagreeing that Hybrids Have Enough Horsepower

    Figure 6. Percentage of Male and Female Respondents Agreeing or Disagreeing that Hybrids Have Enough Horsepower