Ford: You Can’t Force Adoption of Electric Cars

By · July 29, 2011

Ford Focus Electric

Ford Focus Electric

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 the Ford Focus Electric 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 the parameters of driving an EV, said Hotaling. For example, they ask questions such as “Will my car short out if I drive through deep water?”

I live here in California, which is pretty much EV central. When I was with my running club in the hills of Pacific Palisades a few weeks ago, I saw three cars along the curb: two Prii and one Chevy Volt.) We forget that that electric drive cars are sort of like flying saucers to a good portion of U.S. consumers.

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

No Compromises

Many consumers don’t 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 percent 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 basis.”

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 other EV makers basically betting the farm on one car. The travails of Norway’s Think and its small all-electric Think City, which just got a third lease on life when a Russian investor agree to save it from bankruptcy, may be a sign of what awaits other small EV makers.

Will the big automakers 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.

New to EVs? Start here

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