While readers of this site and other alternative energy proponents are keenly aware of emerging transportation technology, a significant number of American car buyers remain uninformed about even the basics on how EVs and hybrids work.

These were the findings of a survey answered from Oct. 22-Nov 2, 2010 by 1,898 new car buyers and shoppers last fall, who if graded, would have scored from a C at best, to a low F.

Aside from what it might suggest about people who are not even close to being up to date in the most information-saturated society in history, their lack of understanding is being seen as a persistent barrier to sales, says Synovate , the firm that conducted the survey .

Ignorance is not bliss

Surprisingly, somewhat more was known about comparatively new Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV), than Plug-In Hybrids (PHEV), and Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV), even though hybrids such as the Toyota Prius have been around since 1997.

Near the same time Synovate quizzed grown-ups, Detroit-area students participated in a web-cast presentation on the electrification of automobiles featuring the Chevrolet Volt. Getting the older folks who drive and spend money to learn as eagerly is now being realized as a major hurdle to overcome. (Photo by Jeffrey Sauger for Chevrolet)

Want some examples?

About a third answered that BEVs produce tailpipe emissions.

Just over one half did not know it takes more than 15 minutes to recharge them.

Fully 85-percent confused all-electric BEVs with hybrids and Extended Range Electric Vehicles (EREV) like the Chevrolet Volt, and said BEVs are fueled by both gasoline and batteries.

Answering questions about hybrids, 77 percent said these cars are fueled by hydrogen, and 72 percent said they have zero tailpipe emissions.

(Wrong) answers prompt more questions

How it is that a third of this cross-sampling of Americans still think hybrids run solely on battery power 14 years since popular versions were first introduced, is open to anyone’s guess.

If it is true America is “addicted to oil,” as oil-industry affiliated former President Bush said, then one might surmise millions of alleged addicts still haven’t reached out that much for help.

Or, perhaps efforts to enlighten them by both Republicans and Democrats, the media, car companies, and other advocates have not been heard.

Survey results from 1,898 new car buyers. Extended Range Electric Vehicles (EREV) were not surveyed, but analysis can be applied to such examples as the Chevy Volt.

The closer one looks, the more its seems the “addiction” metaphor is extremely fitting.

The survey further indicates that many Americans are not well aware of alternatives to internal combustion engines (ICE) even though many millions of their tax dollars have gone toward grant programs and stimulus handouts used to fund them.

Is it apathy? Are people simply overwhelmed? Tuned out? Just too busy?

What ever the reasons, the survey reveals at least one major variable contributing to why top auto executives predict worldwide market share for EVs and hybrids will range from (only) 2-10 percent nine years from now.

For the foreseeable future, according to Stephen Popiel, senior vice president of Synovate, car dealers will have to spend time as the first to explain the working of EVs, plug-in hybrids, standard hybrids, and, one could deduce – EREVs like the Volt.

"We have to wonder if consumers will become disillusioned when they understand the actual requirements of electric vehicles, Popiel said, ”Will the person who goes to their Chevy dealer to buy a Volt, or their Nissan dealer to buy a Leaf, still buy the vehicle once they discover the need for plugs and 220 volt outlets? And, if they become discouraged with the electric option, will they stay and buy a different Chevy or Nissan vehicle? Or simply leave in confusion?"

Need for education

In case anyone is just getting caught up, the proposed “paradigm shift” for alternatively powered vehicles is not the name of a new type of transmission.

Seriously, Popiel said the evidence is clear that much more will be needed to teach consumers.

"The C and D grades consumers earned [when totaled] in our research simply aren't good enough to support the profound societal shift the industry will need to deliver federally-mandated quotas ,” Popiel said.

While asking whose job it is to get the message out, Popiel offered his view that it was in the interest of pioneering automakers, although work done to build consumer acceptance would later be capitalized upon by automakers that follow. It is also the job of the government leaders who are promoting alternative transportation solutions , he said.

"Clearly, there is a role for government to play, beyond just legislating quotas. There needs to be a significant consumer education process to explain why we must move from a petroleum-based powertrain to an electric based powertrain," Popiel said, "The awareness campaign would have to address questions of environmental protection and national security, i.e. dependence on foreign oil leaves our society vulnerable to outside disruptions."

Tipping point?

As many alternative energy advocates would be quick to agree, the reasons why everyone needs to know how EVs and hybrids – and other technologies – work are actually cross-cultural, and transcend political affiliation and individual sentiment.

No matter where you stand on topics like global warming, peak oil, the quality of the environment, national security, reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil, augmenting American industry, and more, EVs and hybrids potentially offer something for people of all ideological stripes.

This said, Americans have often been accused of being crisis managers.

Actually, with runaway national debt, a trade imbalance, and other economic issues, there is abundant evidence that as a nation, We The People are not even managing our crises very well.

So how will the industry sell more EVs and hybrids as one solution to some of the problems this country faces?

A typical response is the tipping point hinges around the vehicles’ price, the price of oil, and thus fuel.

While this assertion may contain some validity, let’s briefly think about its latter half.

What would happen if gasoline and diesel did go to $5 per gallon – and did not stop, rising toward $6 or more, approaching or even equaling what people already pay almost everywhere else in the developed world?

Would it mean automatic sales for EVs and hybrids? In the short term, it is likely. In the long run, do we really know?

Such talk gets bandied about by auto industry execs and pro-EV fans all the time.

Fact is, economic writers disagree on this hypothesis.

Similarly, philosophers also disagree on many subjects, but one statement widely held in one form or another is, “be careful what you wish for.”

If fuel costs do rise to new levels, what would happen to the cost of petroleum-based plastics in automobiles? How much more would it cost to supply parts for their manufacture, to run their assembly lines, and ship them?

For that matter, since petroleum is used pervasively, what would happen to the cost of computers, a loaf of bread, the cost to send kids to school, housing – the cost of everything?

How bad could a potential domino effect be to the entire economy if the price of oil escalated significantly, say to $120, $150, even $170 per barrel or more as some have already predicted it could?

Even if more Chevrolet Volts were produced, and demand increased, would the Volt and other cars still be able to sell for the prices they do, and would people have the money to pay for them?

This is the survey prospective new car buyers were asked to answer.

The consequences of runaway oil prices is something the mainstream media, as well as “underground” contrarian economic newsletters can speculate about, but fact is, until we go down that road, we do not really know.

And short of this, what would be more amenable than essentially hoping for another crisis – or at least more financial pain – for purported “addicts” to then be forced to manage?

Besides automakers lowering selling prices as soon as feasible, how about we all push even harder for next generation batteries with increased energy density and faster recharge times?

This is what they are already working on, we know, and for the sake of EVs and hybrids, there are many who say the technology can’t come soon enough.

At the same time building more recharging infrastructure and finding more effective ways to power the grid, are also seen as enlightened solutions rather than yet another crisis to fix by an already overburdened society.

So, coming back to the lead topic, it is at least clear that more people will need to wake up to the situation facing us.

Alternative transportation solutions are actually just pieces of a larger puzzle everyone stands to gain or lose by learning more about.

While EVs and hybrids haven’t sold a lot of the “car guys” or even most consumers yet, the need to solve the problems they are intended to is already there, and it is at least free to learn about them. If more people do, some may even find they could meet their needs now.

This is a complex topic. We know we’ve only scratched the surface.

Just offering some food for thought.