Shocking? Many Buyers Aren’t Quite Sure What a Hybrid Car Is

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2018 Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid

The first mass-market hybrid in the Western World, the Honda Insight, debuted while we were still worrying whether Y2K would lead us back into the Stone Age. Some days, I wonder whether we’d be better off if it had.

Regardless of my personal feelings about humanity and societal progression, we’ve had nearly two decades to familiarize ourselves with the gas-electric powertrain, but apparently not everyone got the message. A recent survey of 1,000 drivers shows there’s still plenty of confusion over what a hybrid car is actually capable of.

While the survey, conducted by UK publication Autocar and market research firm Simpson Carpenter LTD., centered around fuel types and driver preferences, it’s the hybrid question that interest this writer.

Let’s go out on a fairly sturdy limb and assume that British drivers have a similar level of access to product information as their North American counterparts. The UK is a wealthy, worldly, connected, technologically advanced nation with a sizeable motoring press and no shortage of cutting edge European car offerings. Frankly, they should know what’s up.

Instead, the survey found that “a third of respondents cited concern over driving range as a reason not to consider buying a hybrid model, despite this only being an issue that affects pure electric vehicles,” Autocar writes.

2018 Niro Plug-In Hybrid, Image: Kia Motors

It’s easy to forget that most drivers do not spend their free time reading about the latest new vehicle in the online pages of whatever. For over a century, gasoline and diesel ruled the roost, and shoehorning a new propulsion type into the conversation means it’s going to take some time before the information sinks in. The thing is, though, everyone knows what an electric car is. These existed over a century ago, only to reappear roughly a decade after the first hybrids hit the market.

Autocar notes that while nearly a quarter of Brits claim they plan to purchase a hybrid or electric vehicle as their next car, only 5.1 percent vehicles sold in the first quarter of 2018 fell under the label of “alternatively fueled vehicles.” That’s a little more than double the take rate in the United States.

“Potential hybrid buyers are confused by the technology and are being deterred by [perceived] barriers,” said Tom Simpson, managing director of Simpson Carpenter.

The technology, at least for a consumer, is not difficult to understand. A hybrid vehicle — depending on type — operates on electric power in some situations, but always has a gas tank and internal combustion engine on board. Maybe it’s the latter part of the description that’s not getting across. And who’s to blame for that? Automakers, their marketing agencies, and the media, mainly, as these are the entities that furnish the public with information.

Calling a hybrid, plug-in or otherwise, an electrified car doesn’t help this confusion, but it does help automakers burnish their green cred. While technically accurate, to the uneducated driver’s ear it sounds too much like electric. So much time and effort goes into touting a hybrid’s (limited) gas-free driving abilities — and avoiding any mention of gasoline or emissions or any of that nasty stuff — that a barely-listening buyer can easily become confused. It’s a communications problem that’s not getting better, either, even as sales of electrified vehicles rise (ever so slowly).

Sure, this is just one survey, but it’s revealing nonetheless. I’d be very interested in seeing an identical one conducted on this side of the pond.

[Images: Honda, Kia Motors]