Our latest family trip to Devon was one of those holidays that gives with one hand and takes away with the other. One joyous sunny day on a beach followed by days of dark skies and rain. On the way home our car broke down. To borrow a quote from the film Withnail & I, we had gone on holiday by mistake.
On our return home, we set about looking for a new car. “No more diesels” my wife said.
I noted that another individual with a slightly larger interest in the future of car fuels had reached a similar conclusion. In July the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, Ben Van Beurden told Bloomberg that his next car purchase would be an electric vehicle.
We might also save some money. Ford today announced a new incentive scheme to remove older diesel and petrol cars as part of a ‘journey’ to improve air quality and to promote sales of newer, more efficient cars and new fuel technologies.
A fork in the road
Petrol, diesel, hybrid or electric? This choice is an early fork in the road for today’s car buyer. It is also a choice that is becoming more complex. Buyers are questioning the financial and environmental costs of carbon fuels, but that does not mean they are entirely convinced by the newer hybrids and electrics.
On the supply side, car markers are contemplating where and when to place their bets. Toyota and Tesla put down their money early, but most manufacturers are adopting a more cautious approach, keeping one eye on the legislators whilst attempting to decipher the direction and speed of change.
Caution is understandable. When choosing which fuel technology to back and how best to present it, there is still plenty of opportunity for the car industry to get it right or wrong.
Let’s not forget that hybrids and electrics together represent less than 3 per cent of new car sales in the US. Petrol remains the dominant fuel choice of most customers. This leaves manufacturers with the challenge of balancing their R&D priorities between immediate and future needs. Careful judgement is needed when the investment cycle can stretch out to 10 years before a new car is ready to sell.
How do we choose?
Car buyers are searching for information and opinions to help them decide how to make the right choice. Between 2015 and 2017, there were 2.5 million posts in social media on the topic of car fuels. The largest proportion of these posts referenced the technology people know least about and have the least experience of, plug-in electrics.
People also want to fill gaps in their knowledge about the long-term outlook for diesel and petrol. The UK car market has just registered its fourth consectutive month of falling sales. The absence of clarity on carbon fuels has been highlighted as one of the main factors in consumer reluctance to buy new cars.
Manufacturers want to understand how their customers feel about the choices in front of them. Are they still comfortable with petrol? Are they ready to make the leap to a new fuel technology? It would also be useful to consider how the hybrid and electric segments compete against each other. If customer acceptance of plug-in electrics accelerates faster than expected, sales of hybrids could lose momentum.
Whatever the outcome, this is not simply a practical choice, it is an emotional one. Car purchases have always been an unfathomable mix of heart and head.
The CEOs of the Lynch household and Royal Dutch Shell are clear where they stand on fuel choice. What we need to do next is to examine these questions at scale. For a much larger sample, we can use our social insights approach to study the reactions of thousands more car buyers.
At the top level, there is a lot of public interest in fuel technology. I’ve already mentioned that we found over 2 million posts. The results excluded retweets in order to focus on verbatims given by individual contributors. We also removed bots and bot-like activity attributed to personal accounts.
From the clean data set we created a large sample group of 46k people who exhibited an emotional signal for at least one fuel choice in 67k posts.
Trusting our choices
Fig 1 Shows how people are more or less likely to trust a fuel technology and to be excited by it.
For Trust, the results confirm that a combination of environmental and legislative concerns has undermined public confidence in diesel. At the time of writing, Porsche CEO Oliver Blume has just announced that his company will delay a final decision on the future of its diesel-powered Cayenne until 2020. Although not shown in Fig.1, our research found that diesel over-indexes for public Mistrust. The variance is statistically significant and relevant to Porsche’s decision.
People are most likely to express trust in Hybrids. There are more hybrids on the road than any other new fuel technology, which means there are more owner stories to share. Owners of hybrids are very happy with their cars. Hybrids over-index for all positive experiential emotions including Joy and Delight. People are less likely to associate hybrids with negative experiences and Disappointment.
Trust is also prominent in responses to plug-in electrics cars, but in this instance there are fewer first-hand experiences to share. What people trust in is the promise and potential of electric cars. This is demonstrated by the high levels of Excitement linked to electrics, which goes beyond Tesla and embraces the early offerings from the major manufacturers. Positive expectations for major advances in electric cars are statistically significant and perhaps offer an early pointer to how the electric segment is pulling customer attention away from hybrids.
How feeling informs thinking
When we analyse the full spectrum of emotional reactions for each fuel technology, positive responses are more likely for hybrids and electrics. When people start to think about their choices, explicit references to a particular fuel are even more weighted towards electric.
The operative word here is ‘explicit’. Electric is innovative and new, so people want to distinguish it from everything else. This does not mean a majority of buyers are poised to switch to electric. The upward trend in discussion signals that more buyers are looking for reasons to include or exclude electric from their long list.
There are some potential inhibitors that the proponents of hybrids and electrics should be aware of. First up, people want reassurance that the power going into their plug-ins comes from environmentally-responsible sources. This question is especially important for new buyers as it deals head-on with the ‘clean’ credentials of electric cars. If people have doubts, they will need more convincing before they buy.
We also found that not everyone who talks about electric cars is a fan of futuristic shapes and small sizes. It is a limited part of the discussion, but it could develop into something more. We’ll keep an eye on it. In the meantime, manufacturers can take heart that no matter what engine is under the hood, people still want a good-looking ride.
To give readers the opportunity to interact with the data, we have created a dashboard for the four fuel types. You can find it here: