America’s Commuting Habits Have Changed. Here’s What It Means for Electric Vehicles

The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on the transportation and automobile industries. Urban area residents have sought out more remote locations, leading to an increased demand for used vehicles. Online shopping, seen as a safer alternative to in-store purchases, means that package delivery services have had to increase their capacity in response.

But the pandemic has also decreased the number of hours Americans spend behind the wheel. With workplaces closing or embracing remote work, many Americans have seen their daily commutes eliminated. What does that mean for electric vehicle demand? The J.D. Power 2020 Q3 Mobility Confidence Index Study revealed surprising information.

Consumer Confidence in Electric Vehicles

In September of 2020, J.D. Power and SurveyMonkey conducted the survey of over 8,500 consumers and industry experts in the United States and Canada. These 8,500 participants provided feedback about electric vehicles, while almost 9,000 respondents answered questions about self-driving vehicles.

According to the survey results, confidence in electric vehicles actually decreased slightly. Compared with the J.D. Power 2019 Q3 survey, American confidence has declined from 55 to 54 on a 100-point scale. That decline in confidence is somewhat surprising, given how the pandemic has limited driving distances. Electric vehicle range remains a concern, but shorter commutes reduce the need for long-range capacities.

There are still opportunities to build consumer confidence in electric vehicles, though, and the act of driving and owning an electric vehicle seems to be a cure to this range anxiety. A study released by AAA in January of 2020 surveyed more than 40,000 electric vehicle owners. The study found that before respondents owned an electric vehicle, 91% of owners had at least one concern, such as how the vehicle could be used for long-distance travel. After buying an electric vehicle, many owners no longer experienced those concerns.

The AAA survey results also revealed promising information to quell consumers’ most common fears about electric vehicles. Worry about not having enough places to charge a vehicle and running out of charge while driving are major concerns. However, 95% of respondents reported that they had never run out of a charge while driving, and 77% of respondents noted that they were less or no longer concerned about insufficient vehicle range after having bought an electric vehicle.

The J.D. Power 2020 Q3 survey reveals key areas that manufacturers need to focus on to make electric vehicles competitive and compelling. Range continues to be one of those essentials, with 78% of respondents expecting electric vehicles to have a range of 300 miles or more. That 78% rate has increased from the 75% of respondents who expected this larger range in 2019.

Charging time also carries significance for consumers. In 2019, 41% of respondents were willing to wait 15 minutes or less to recharge. With the 2020 survey, that percentage increased to 45%, indicating higher expectations for faster, more efficient charging.

Study Insights About Self-Driving Vehicles

The J.D. Power study also examined consumer sentiment toward self-driving vehicles. Again, consumer trust and acceptance are closely tied to familiarity and experience with self-driving vehicles. Study participants identified their top concerns with self-driving vehicles being technology failure, error, and hacking. Study results also indicated that 14% of respondents who currently drive a personal vehicle, and 22% of participants who take public transportation would feel comfortable riding in a self-driving vehicle.  

Positioning Electric and Self-Driving Vehicles for Success

These surveys indicate that, while electric vehicles offer consumers many benefits, the electric vehicle industry still has work to do in building consumer trust and demand for these cars. There’s also opportunity for vehicle manufacturers, electric vehicle charging station developers, and other industry professionals to work together to address the factors that are limiting consumer demand. Similarly, the self-driving vehicle industry needs to build consumer trust in the vehicles’ safety.

Even with the shorter commutes that have become common during the pandemic, vehicle range and charging remain significant consumer concerns and pain points. This indicates potential opportunities for manufacturers; with significant emphasis placed on vehicle range, a manufacturer who produces a vehicle with a greater range than competitors is poised to stand out in this competitive market. This opportunity also exists for electric vehicle battery manufacturers, who could make their products more competitive by offering faster charging and longer-lasting batteries.

In terms of increasing accessibility to charging stations, vehicle manufacturers, state and local governments, and the federal government can all play important roles. Charging station location software, incentives for businesses and districts to install charging stations, and tax breaks for charging station purchases could help to overcome this important hurdle to making charging stations accessible.

Ultimately, building trust in self-driving and electric vehicles depends on increasing consumer familiarity and giving consumers the experience of using and driving these vehicles, themselves. The study found that 69% of American consumers had never ridden in an electric vehicle, and 31% of respondents said that they know nothing about electric vehicles. American consumers who had never been in an electric vehicle were unlikely to buy them; 62% stated that they have a very low to no likelihood or buying or leasing an electric vehicle.

Building consumer familiarity and experiences is essential. Rental programs, electric taxis, robotaxis and implementing self-driving vehicle and electric vehicle technology in public transit may all be viable techniques to accomplish this. Manufacturers and dealerships may want to explore vehicle trials, leases, and even rentals to give consumers experience with the technology and to build the trust necessary to make a purchase.

The electric vehicle industry continues to evolve, and as more of these vehicles make it to market, the industry still has work to do. As electric vehicles become more common, consumer familiarity with them should increase, but building that initial familiarity and confidence will take work and time.

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