Each Earth Day (April 22), many of us pay a little extra atten­tion to issues of envi­ron­mental sus­tain­ability, cli­mate policy, going green in our everyday lives and, increas­ingly, alternative-​​fuel vehi­cles. Rosanna Garcia, asso­ciate pro­fessor of mar­keting at Northeastern’s Col­lege of Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion, has con­ducted a survey of 7,500 car enthu­si­asts to gauge their interest in alter­na­tive vehi­cles, including hybrids, plug-​​in hybrids, elec­tric and diesel.A National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion grant funded the study as part of an overall effort to reduce green­house gases and depen­dence on for­eign oil.

Can you please explain your recent survey and sim­u­la­tion study to deter­mine con­sumer readi­ness for new alter­na­tive fuel tech­nolo­gies?
A con­sumer study in Feb­ruary 2009 — con­ducted in con­junc­tion with MyShine Box and AutoWeek and spon­sored by the National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion — focused on how con­sumer product knowl­edge may affect pur­chase inten­tion of dif­ferent types of alternative-​​fuel vehi­cles (AFVs). The survey found that fac­tors such as dis­tances between refu­eling, price, fuel type and car type among the most impor­tant attrib­utes. The survey also sug­gests that word-​​of-​​mouth may be influential.

Are con­sumers ready for a move away from tra­di­tional vehi­cles? When do you pre­dict that the Amer­ican mar­ket­place will be recep­tive to such a change?
Our find­ings show that con­sumers aren’t ready to move away from tra­di­tional gasoline-​​powered vehi­cles today. The rea­sons are many, including ease of use and access to fuel, uncer­tainty in tech­nology, car style, com­par­a­tive long-​​term costs and just being “old school.”

What should man­u­fac­turers be doing to cap­ture market share in this next gen­er­a­tion of vehi­cles?
Edu­cating con­sumers about future tech­nolo­gies will reduce their uncer­tainty about AFVs and thus, increase their will­ing­ness to adopt them. I rec­om­mend the auto com­pa­nies start adver­tising now. Sec­ondly, I think Nissan’s approach of part­nering with gov­ern­ment agen­cies is very prac­tical. This strategy gets the product into the hands of people who are the main­stream market and gets gov­ern­ment agen­cies thinking about the infra­struc­ture issues that must be resolved before the main­stream con­sumer accepts AFVs — in par­tic­ular, the avail­ability of charging sta­tions for elec­tric and plug-​​in hybrid vehicles.

What can the gov­ern­ment do to expe­dite this changeover from fossil fuels to alter­na­tive tech­nolo­gies? How impor­tant a role does the con­sumer play in mar­ket­place dynamics?
The biggest impact the gov­ern­ment can have is to pro­vide incen­tives for com­pa­nies and local agen­cies to pro­vide charging sta­tions for elec­tric vehi­cles and make alter­na­tive fuels avail­able. The second thing would be to con­tinue with the rebate pro­grams that have been put in place and not to cap the pro­grams that they do now.
Con­sumers are cru­cial in the accep­tance of AFVs, and auto man­u­fac­turers need to start approaching them now. We’ve found that most con­sumers will accept the AFV tech­nology if it is the only type of vehicle avail­able. But they are looking for a cost/​value bal­ance. The tech­nology must improve over their existing vehi­cles, yet be priced in the same ball­park as their internal com­bus­tion engines.

What is the next step to encourage Amer­ican con­sumers to embrace sus­tain­able inno­va­tion in motor vehi­cles? What work are you doing to change this con­sumer mindset?
Con­ducting mar­keting research about con­sumers’ per­spec­tives on future AFVs is dif­fi­cult, as the average buyer does not under­stand the dif­fer­ences between them. A lack of knowl­edge delays pur­chase deci­sions, so edu­cating con­sumers today about the tech­nology of tomorrow is impor­tant.
Our future research is focused on how to col­lect market data about future tech­nolo­gies such as AFVs, and how to reduce the uncer­tainty and risks of new fuel tech­nolo­gies for the “average” car buyer in order to speed the dif­fu­sion of AFVs. We also intend to inves­ti­gate the most impor­tant way to inform buyers (adver­tising, word-​​of-​​mouth, test drives, etc.), as well as the Internet’s impact as an edu­ca­tional tool.