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One Study, Two Very Different Headlines
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Discussing last week’s release of a survey by JD Power and Associates on consumers’ interest in hybrid powertrains, Power’s own press release said, “Undeterred by Price Premiums, Consumers Show High Interest in Hybrid-Electric Automotive Powertrain Technology.” But industry trade weekly Automotive News titled its story, “Study: Hybrids popular with consumers until they know cost.” (We would have provided a web-link, but you have to be a subscriber to read the story.)
Power’s survey identified 20 emerging automotive technologies, and asked 19,000 consumers whether they would consider purchasing them. The questions were asked before any price information was given, and then again after the average market price for each specific item was revealed.
Before prices were provided, 72 percent of respondents said they were “definitely” or “probably” interested in a hybrid for their next vehicle. Once they learned the average price—Power used a $5,000 premium, which is debatable—the “definitely/probably” group fell to 46 percent of the respondents. Of the 20 technologies, hybrids ranked fifth most popular before pricing, and eighth afterward.
The reasons the headlines conflicted, lie in the way each party looks at the data. Power’s press release emphasizes that the 2008 data represents a considerable increase over a 2005 survey, when 58 percent were “definitely/probably” interested in hybrids before knowing the price. In other words, interest in hybrids has been rising over several years.
The study really focuses on communications, safety, and information technology features, not alternative powertrains, said Mike Marshall, Power’s director of automotive emerging technologies. He put both hybrids and clean-diesel technologies into this year’s survey, he told HybridCars.com, to look at the trade-off effects among car buyers. “Buyers say, ‘I’d like navigation, I’d like collision mitigation, I’d like Bluetooth’,” Marshall said, “but they also say, ‘I want it to be a hybrid’ and we wanted to see what they’d trade off when they had a limited amount to spend.”
The Automotive News coverage, on the other hand, looked at the rise and fall of specific technologies when prices were revealed—but only within this year’s survey. “Interest in many technologies is driven in part by availability,” it said, citing Marshall’s suggestion that clean diesel generated little interest in part because it’s not yet available, and consumers may confuse it with older, dirtier, less reliable American diesels from the late 1970s.
Instead, Automotive News focused on price point. “When the average price of a feature is revealed to be below $500, it usually rises on the list relative to other technologies,” it said. That is far more useful information for its readers—auto industry insiders, including many auto dealers and salespeople.
There’s more to come on the topic, though. Marshall told us that the 2005 interest levels in hybrids and clean diesels were high enough to spawn their own survey the following year, which looks at why consumers consider or reject vehicles with power sources other than strictly gasoline. The latest version of that survey, Power’s 2008 Alternative Powertrain Study, is due out July 11. Stay tuned.