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Plug-in vehicles like the Tesla, Chevy Volt, and Toyota Prius Plug-In make a lot of sense: they can save money on fuel and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change . But few consumers buy them and a study shows why.

Prepared by a research team at Simon Fraser University, The Canadian Plug-In Electric Vehicle Study examines consumer's perceptions and behavior. Among the study's findings:

Most consumers don't understand what plug-in vehicles (PEVs) really are. As you may know, there are two kinds of plug-in cars: Plug-In Hybrid Vehicles (PHEVs) and Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV). "PEV understanding is low," the study found, "with a minority correctly identifying how to fuel the Toyota Prius (18 per cent), the Chevrolet Volt (29 per cent), and the Nissan Leaf (31 per cent). None of the respondents interviewed had direct experience with a BEV, and only a few had direct experience with a PHEV (as either a passenger or driver). Most mainstream respondents did not know PHEVs existed, and had trouble understanding the 'dual fuel' concept."

PEV buyers tend to be more affluent and better educated than buyers of non-plug-in vehicles. Income and education levels were highest in a group identified as PEV Pioneers (these are buyers who purchased PEV early on.) Tesla Model S buyers had the highest income and education levels of all the buyer groups.

Consumers were motivated to buy PEVs by a complex set of perceptions and benefits. Some were social – reducing air pollution and global warming, for example. Some were practical – like saving money on gas. Others were symbolic – like expressing identity, and attaining membership in a social group defined by PEV ownership. "Different PEV models are associated with different symbols," the study said; "all are associated with being pro-environmental, while the Tesla is more associated with images of style and success."

There are vast regional differences in PEV ownership. In Canada, PEV ownership is concentrated in B.C., Ontario and Quebec. Internationally, Norway lead the world in 2014 (almost 14 per cent of new passenger car sales in Norway were PEVs). Of the 23 developed countries listed in the study, Canada was 17th – PEVs comprised just 0.27 per cent of our new-vehicle sales. In last place was Italy, where PEV sales were 0.12 per cent.

Canada lacks a cohesive national strategy for incenting consumers to buy plug-in vehicles: "Across Canada, PEV policy is fragmented with only a few provinces offering comprehensive PEV policy portfolios," the study concludes. "British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec lead the country by offering mainly demand-focused policies, primarily a mix of financial incentives (including purchase subsidies ranging from $5000-8,500) and non-financial incentives."

Since the study was published, Ontario has increased the maximum rebate to $14,000, but currently there is no car for sale in the province that would qualify for the max amount.

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