Why Do People Buy Hybrid Cars?

With 2005 now in our rear-view mirrors, some are proclaiming it "The Year of the Hybrid." Brad Berman, proprietor of HybridCars.com is one of them, and has some research to help explain why. Ken Kurani, Tom Turrentine, and Rusty Heffner of UC Davis's Institute of Transportation Studies completed an interesting study of why we buy hybrids, and came to their conclusions through unusual means. They shunned the more traditional focus groups and multiple-choice surveys in favor of sitting down and having conversations with families of hybrid owners, and came to some very compelling and engaging conclusions. Berman then sat down with the researchers to glean some of their wisdom gained from the research. Here are some excerpts:"Bradley Berman: What is the primary goal of your research?

"Rusty Heffner: We're trying to understand what motivates people to buy a new kind of vehicle. As Americans, when you are buying a car, you have so many choices. You have over 300 combinations of make and model. Why does somebody consider a new technology like a hybrid?

"Ken Kurani: We learned from our first sets of interviews to throw out our assumptions, to start from scratch rather than, in effect, go into an interview with a checklist of things to look for. To go into interviews with a wide-open mind, and let the stories tell us what was important about what people were doing. And then Rusty developed an analytical approach to deal with cars as symbols of identities.

"BB: Journalists commonly criticize hybrid cars for not providing a return on investment for their owners. Based on your research, what's your opinion of that criticism?

"RH: I think the question journalists are asking is, 'Do hybrids save money?" It's the wrong question. A more basic question to ask is, "Do people who are buying hybrid cars really care about saving money?" The truth is that everybody likes to save money in the abstract. But we found in our research that saving money is not the primary motivator for buying a hybrid vehicle. Some people might think about hybrids as ways to save money. Those are not the types of people who are buying these types of vehicles.

"KK: In the interviews, we heard that people who bought a hybrid compared it to nothing else. Once they heard about a Prius, for example, and heard about its capabilities, that became the car they needed next to advance a certain story line. At that point, keeping their old car was no longer desirable.

"Here's where we get into a difference between our approach and a rational analytical approach. The rational analyst might compare their old car to a Prius in terms of cost and performance and those sorts of things, and look to the answers as to why they bought a Prius in the attributes of those vehicles. We're looking at it, and saying no, we think it's driven by the person trying to extend their identity into a new direction or further along in a direction they were already heading. That's the important comparison. What does this care say about who these people are? This explains why they didn't look at any other car, because no other car does what the hybrid does. And it explains why keeping their old car isn't an option."

The full interview, available here, is worth the read. ::HybridCars.com