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Simon Fraser study finds PEV success not tied to awareness of public chargers; implications for policy makers

A new Canada-wide study conducted by Simon Fraser University researchers found that awareness of public chargers is not a strong predictor of plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) interest; other variables are more important, such as the availability of level 1 (110/120-volt) charging at home. The results have important implications for governments with limited budgets to support the EV market, suggests Jonn Axsen, Assistant Professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management.

The study, conducted by Axsen and two of his graduate students, is published in the journal Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment. The researchers also recently presented their study to the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board in Washington, DC.

Policymakers are increasingly promoting the adoption of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) to help combat the global rise in CO2 emissions. Despite the potential environmental benefits of PEVs, several structural, social, and cultural challenges may need to be overcome before PEVs can be widely adopted. One of these challenges is thought to be the limited availability of non-home PEV charging infrastructure, i.e. chargers at work, public and commercial locations. In reality, however, the relationship between the availability of non-home charging infrastructure and the uptake of PEVs is not currently well understood.

… Increasing the availability of PEV charging (home and public) is associated with two main social benefits. The first is to support the use of PEVs among current owners, allowing them to use their PEVs more extensively and ideally offsetting more gasoline-powered kilometers with electric-powered kilometers. The second benefit is to help promote PEV ownership in the first place. The idea is that widespread availability of PEV chargers will increase general awareness of PEV technology, increase perceptions of PEV functionality, and potentially allow for the development of green, innovative, and progressive “cultural branding”. It is this second benefit that we focus on here—the potential of public chargers to increase the uptake of PEVs by stimulating demand.

—Bailey et al.

The study collected information from a representative sample of 1,739 new vehicle buying households in Canada, with 536 from British Columbia. Respondents were asked about awareness of public charging in their region, and about their overall interest in purchasing a plug-in electric vehicle, such as a Chevrolet Volt or Nissan Leaf.

The results showed that as of 2013, when this survey data was collected, 18% of Canadian respondents reported being aware of at least one public charger. The data also showed that British Columbia’s Clean Energy Vehicle program—which installed almost 500 public chargers when the survey was conducted in 2013—was largely successful in increasing charger awareness. Almost one-third (31%) of British Columbian respondents had seen at least one public charger, compared to only 13% of respondents in the rest of Canada.

For comparison, a 2011 US survey found that 12% of respondents had seen public charging locations in their community; excluding the more aware province of BC, levels of awareness of at least one charger in the rest of Canada (13%) are very similar to those in the US. However, that awareness does not necessarily translate into increased plug-in electric vehicle interest.

To investigate the relationship between charger awareness and PEV interest they began with a bivariate test using Chi-Squared tests of association. The researchers constructed two categories representing awareness of public chargers: respondents have “perceived charger existence” if they state that they are aware of a public charger in at least one location type, and they have “perceived charger abundance” if they are aware of a public charger in at least two location types. The Simon Fraser team conducted Chi-Square tests with both variables.

They subsequently developed the investigation with binary logistic regression to control for socio-demographics and variables relating to respondent readiness for a PEV, and to see if the relationships observed in the Chi-Squared tests remained when controlling for other relevant variables.

We believe it is important that we control for respondents having prior interest in PEVs. Individuals with prior interest may be more likely to notice and remember PEV infrastructure. In other words, any significant bivariate relationship we observe between charger awareness and PEV interest might be spurious if pre-existing PEV interest is the true explanation. We thus deemed it important to add an explanatory variable to control for “pre-existing PEV interest”—that is, PEV interest that existed prior to the respondent completing the survey.

We did not directly ask this question on the survey, so we used two different questions that we believe serve as proxies for pre-existing interest. Our first proxy is a dummy variable indicating if the respondent stated that they had previously researched at least one of the following specific vehicle models: a Chevrolet Volt or a Nissan Leaf. Our second, alternate proxy is a dummy variable indicating if the respondent stated that they were “familiar” or “highly familiar” with either of these vehicle models. The survey questions specified these two relatively popular PEV models rather than refer to “electric vehicles” or “plug-in hybrid vehicles” more generally—we believe that reference to specific models would produce more reliable results.

—Bailey et al.

In multiple-regression analysis, perceived charger existence only had a statistically significant association with interest in PEV uptake when a single independent variable was used. Perceived abundance was estimated to be a significant predictor at the 95% confidence level where the team used “PEV research’” as a proxy to represent prior interest in PEVs. In contrast, perceived abundance was not estimated to be a significant predictor in models where “PEV familiarity” was a proxy for prior interest in PEVs.

In terms of PEV readiness, respondents with Level 1 (110/120-volt) charger access at home and respondents whom have previously researched PEV technology are more likely to be interested in PEVs— which also supports previous findings in Germany. In particular, Level 1 charger access seems to be a key predictor of interest in PEVs, being a significant predictor at a high significance level (99%) in all regression models. This finding suggests that policies aimed at investment in home recharge accessibility could have a greater impact on PEV adoption than those that focus on public charging infrastructure—such as subsidies for home charger installation or building regulations that require or facilitate charger installation. Development of home charging availability may be particularly effective among residents of apartment buildings and in housing situations where respondents are less likely to already have some form of home charger access.

—Bailey et al.

The study also found that future buyers are far more likely to be attracted to plug-in hybrid vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Volt, which can be powered by both gasoline and electricity.

When we account for the relevant factors, our analysis suggests that the relationship between public charger awareness and plug-in electric vehicle demand is weak or non-existent. In other words, the installation of public chargers might not be the best way to encourage growth in the electric vehicle market.

Given what we’ve seen here, it seems wise for governments to focus their money on incentives other than public electric vehicle chargers. We know that purchase rebates can spark consumer interest, and we’ve shown that home charging is important. In combination with the implementation of a Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate like California’s, these measures could be the biggest boosters of electric vehicle sales.

—Jonn Axsen

Grants provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and Natural Resources Canada funded this research.

Resources

  • Bailey, H., Miele, A., and J. Axsen (2015) “Is awareness of public charging associated with consumer interest in plug-in electric vehicles?” Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment doi: 10.1016/j.trd.2015.02.001

Comments

mahonj

Knowing where public chargers are isn't much use, unless they are within 200 metres of where you live.

As pointed out, enabling people to charge at home (by subsidising it?) is probably a better idea. Alternately, give a grant to add in a charger at EV owner's place of work (or any place nominated by them (within reason)). Then, they could put the infrastructure where it was useful (at least initially).

Also, they could make it easy to add an EV to a household with existing cars, perhaps by having very low car tax and enabling insurance companies to insure ICE+Ev car pairs as one.

Some places (for instance very cold locations) are just not suitable for EVs and there is no need to subsidise them.

CheeseEater88

Yeah, I will say if I could charge at my apartment, school, or job it would make owning a PEV much more palatable.

Sure I could pay some one to use their outlet, and get a spot up close, and buy some very nice extension cords, but I feel it really wouldn't be worth the hassle, I'd probably pay more for the cords every night than would be worth it.

Engineer-Poet

PHEVs have small enough batteries that they can be fully charged overnight from regular wall outlets.  Better charging infrastructure is nice for such vehicles, but hardly required.

ai_vin

Having an outlet in the garage, carport, or just on an outside wall is useful to a homeowner for more than just charging their PEV. They could run their electric mower & other power tools, lights etc. while keeping the doors shut. It's so useful that if it isn't written into the building code it should be.

electric-car-insider.com

A counter intuitive finding among many PHEV users is that they use public charge more often. When you have limited AER, you are motivated to top up more often (people don't buy PHEVs because they like to burn gas).

When you have 200+ mile range, your local public infrastructure becomes almost irrelevant.

The study focuses on the use of charge stations to create awareness about EVs. If you want awareness, buy a billboard.

HarveyD

Charging requiremnts for extended range BEVs and PHEVs with smaller battery pack are very different.

By 2020-2025, quick charge extended range (500+ Km) BEV owners may use public charging stations much the same way as we currently use gas stations. Home charging facilities may represent an advantage for lower cost overnight slow charging but may not be an absolute necessity.

However, PHEV owners will need (home and at work) low speed charging facilities to ensure maximum use of electric drive.

Engineer-Poet

ECI, you're absolutely right about PHEV psychology (I've been topping up regularly in order to avoid turning on the engine).  Speed of charging is a very big deal for those brief stops.  You'd probably be amused if I told you one of my recent discoveries, and what I wish I could ask the various auto company engineers about the capabilities and limits of their PHEV chargers.

electric-car-insider.com

Don't hold back any humorous anecdotes, EP.

HD> may use public charging stations much the same way as we currently use gas stations.

If a typical person's car sits for 8 hours a day at work, and again 8 hours while they sleep, and most of the other 8 hours of the day, why would anyone choose to spend 30 or more minutes managing a charge process in a public place, competing for that resource? This would negate one of the great conveniences and advantages of EVs - the chore of refueling can simply go away. Every day starts with full fuel. Maximum utility. Ability to minimize cost by shifting the timing of the refueling event.

People like to bring up the plight of apartment dwellers. But the undeniable fact is that those cars are also parked somewhere about 23 hours per day. If we can build roads and parking lots, we can build universal public charging infrastructure. This is not some cosmic mystery. It's an infrastructure project.

Big batteries actually permit lower charging rates. You'd be amazed at how well you can get by on 120v when you have 265 mile range. Charging becomes a non-issue because you have a big buffer.

Tesla Model S should become standard issue to every transportation policy maker. Sounds like a luxury. But I assure you that it would be far cheaper than the money wasted by poor decision making because the use cases and by dynamics of use are often not well understood by those policy makers who have no practical experience of 200+ mile EVs.


Brotherkenny4

Did any of you know that federal labs do not have EV charging? It's because the government is not allowed to do anything for their employees. It seem insane to me that the labs who research all kinds of energy technology do not support the employees who have EVs or plug-ins. The government has many ways to show us that they are stupid.

Engineer-Poet

My discovery isn't ha-ha funny, it's more along the lines of "how I stumbled over this obfuscated fact".  And the discovery of that fact makes me wish I could pick the brains of the people who design these systems, in part to see if chargers can be made better for the existing fleet.

electric-car-insider.com

Do you need to file a provisional patent before you tell us, EP?

If you wait too long Tony Williams is going to beat you to the punch line.

Engineer-Poet

Considering that I discovered a fact about the Ford PHEV charging systems (which is left out of the owner's manual and all on-line documentation), there's nothing TO patent.  And I'd happily give away any IP from my notion just to see it go into use.

T2

The installation of 500 chargers through a government program seems to confirm what Mariana Mazzucota was saying on TVO's Agenda last week and in her book "The Entrepreneurial State" regarding the Private Sector Myth.

I expect that once the government funded infrastructure is in place there will be some capitalist ready to grab the keys and drive away in order to privatise the profits having ensured that practically all the initial costs have been borne by the social sector. Mark my words.

On a lighter note I see that California lawmakers have already set up laws to have landlords provide a proportion of outside electrical outlets so that apartment dwellers who have little political power don't get "left out in the cold" so to speak.

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