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Prices High at the Pumps But Awareness and Use of Alternative Fuel Technologies Remains Low

Despite record oil prices, concerns about global pollution levels and dependence on foreign energy, Americans' awareness and use of alternative fuel engine technologies is still fairly low, according to a recent Synovate survey.

Synovate, a global market research firm, surveyed over 900 respondents in the US and Canada, as part of an international assessment of 4,500 vehicle owners around the world. "Virtually every automotive manufacturer worldwide is trying to understand consumers' familiarity with, usage of and preference towards hybrid electric, direct injection diesel and alternative fuel source vehicles," commented Scott Miller, CEO of Synovate's global Motoresearch practice.

American and Canadian consumers have similar awareness and adoption behaviors toward varying technologies, but demonstrate significantly divergent motivations for considering these vehicles. A majority of Americans surveyed want to reduce dependence on foreign energy while Canadians, along with most respondents across the globe, want cleaner emissions.

"It used to be that the principal benefit consumers saw in these technologies was the reduced impact on the environment," said Scott Miller, CEO of Synovate Motoresearch. "But consumers are starting to make the connection between fuel consumption and other societal concerns."

Americans responded similarly to consumers around the world when asked which factors keep them from purchasing an alternative fuel vehicle. By far, high vehicle cost is the number one deterrent, while the perception of these vehicles' limited driving range was the second most claimed reason for rejecting alternative technologies.

In terms of the type of alternative fuel technology preferred, American consumers are most likely to consider the highly popular hybrid electric vehicles over any other alternative to conventional engines, though only 6% of the respondents surveyed own a hybrid vehicle. Other countries surveyed for this study, including China and Russia, had significantly lower awareness of this technology.

Direct injection diesel technology -- a dramatic improvement over its predecessor diesel technology in terms of fuel efficiency, performance and tailpipe emissions -- has the highest use globally, but is still very low at only 5% among all those surveyed. In the US, this type of engine is the least familiar of the three technologies mentioned in the survey, with 37% of Americans never having heard of direct injection diesels.

"Diesel technology has improved dramatically over the last decade, as is evidenced by broad adoption in many European markets," said Miller. "Outside Europe, however, it is plagued by consumer skepticism because of older diesel technology most typically found in pickups and commercial vehicles, which are typically loud, rough and have visible tailpipe emissions. The challenge facing diesel advocates in the US is how to get enough newer diesels into the market to expedite the same change in perception that has taken place in Europe." Miller adds that legislation currently being introduced in the US may actually make it even tougher for diesel technology to be adopted in this market in the very near future.

While nearly all North Americans (91%) are familiar with alternative fuel sources such as natural gas, ethanol, methanol or bio diesel, it is not surprising that personal experiences driving these vehicles are virtually nil (2%). One major hurdle may be fueling infrastructures in this country.

"Alternative fuel vehicles are typically developed in small, experimental volumes for commercial application, which is why so few retail consumers have seen or even heard of them," explains Miller, adding that the fueling infrastructure does not exist to offer general consumers a minimally acceptable level of convenience. "This is a serious 'chicken and egg' problem for the energy and automotive industries. Manufacturers can't afford to launch vehicles that are not supported by a refueling infrastructure, and the energy industry can't afford to build the infrastructure and wait 10 years for enough vehicles to be on the road to make it worth their investment."

In the US, reoccurring environmental disasters are likely to shake things up a bit in the move towards alternative fuel sources. "Don't underestimate the emotional impact of increasing hurricane behavior in the Southeast or other observable changes in the climate that are linked to carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases," cautions Miller. "Consumers may drive the demand for change sooner rather than later in this country due to these factors."

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