The success of electric vehicles in Australia may depend more on social acceptance by a driver’s peer group than on factors such as price, performance and driving range, a new survey has found.
Australia lags behind the developed world in a transition to clean and green electric cars, with issues including how far a vehicle can drive on a single charge, how much it costs and how accessible charging infrastructure often cited as key barriers to purchase.
However, a new study from Geelong’s Deakin University shows that peer pressure may also play a big role in the whys and wherefores behind decisions to buy an electric vehicle (EV).
Dr James Davidson, who carried out the survey of 500 drivers as part of his PhD thesis for Deakin Business School, says that it shows just how deeply ingrained peer approval by friends and family is when making purchasing decisions.
“We found that tangible things like purchase price, operating costs, driving range, emissions and acceleration time are all certainly influential in the decision-making process,” he said in a statement.
“But they also sit closely alongside psychological components, because some consumers only act in a certain way because of prevailing attitudes and social norms.
“We found it’s actually this part of the equation that has a big role to play in driving a higher uptake of electric vehicles in Australia.
“It’s not just the tangible attributes that underpin buying behaviour, but social norms, such as what your friends and family might think of your purchase and attitudes towards the vehicles.
In 2019 the number of electric vehicles tripled after the introduction of the very successful Tesla Model 3, however this was already from a very small base and registered EVs in Australia still make up less than 1% of the national fleet.
Davidson says that the Australian love affair with the car – and the attributes associated with internal combustion engine vehicles, such the ability to tow, to refuel quickly and drive long distances – means shifting social attitudes towards EVs could be difficult.
“My data showed that if driving is someone’s preferred mode of transport – as is common in Australia – they are more price sensitive and place a lower value on the attributes of electric vehicles than those who prefer other modes of transport,” says Davidson.
“The results also indicate that a preference for vehicle size, specifically large vehicles, has a significant influence on consumers’ willingness to pay for electric vehicles.
“This is probably underpinned by the fact owners of large conventional petrol-powered cars have to make greater trade-offs when considering an electric vehicle, particularly on things like driving range.”
The global shift to electric mobility is seeing carmakers make economic decisions that impact the Australian auto market, either to meet overseas emissions targets and avoid fines, or to trim outgoings in order to focus on expensive EV development.
Examples are South Korean car maker Kia which is sending its limited electric vehicle stock to countries with vehicle emissions standards, and US auto giant GM which on Monday announced it will shut down the iconic Holden brand in Australia by 2021, with no plans as yet to have any further significant presence in Australia.
The reasons behind these decisions are by and large one of confidence – the confidence for carmakers that EVs imported to Australia will be sure to sell.
“It doesn’t matter how good a vehicle is or how much it costs, if a potential buyer’s friends and family encourage it as the right choice that will make the real difference,” Davidson says.
Davidson says that for this to happen, policy-makers and industry must do more improve the social acceptance of electric cars, as well as consumer understanding.
He points to countries like the UK and Norway which are successfully introducing electric vehicles using a combination of regulations and incentives.
“That’s particularly pertinent when we consider proposed targets like electric cars making up 50 per cent of all new vehicle sales by 2030 in Australia,” Davidson says.
“In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently announced that the UK government will now ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars five years earlier than planned, bringing that forward to some point in 2035.
“Across in Norway, battery electric vehicles make up more than 29 per cent of market share, and when combined with plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, more than 46 per cent, but they have multiple incentives.
“So if Australian policy-makers and industry want to increase the domestic uptake of electric vehicles by Australian drivers, they need to look at incentives that not just address the tangible attributes around cost and performance, but also incentives that position electric vehicles as the social norm.”
Bridie Schmidt is lead reporter for The Driven, sister site of Renew Economy. She specialises in writing about new technology, and has a keen interest in the role that zero emissions transport has to play in sustainability.