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Women the key to alternate-fuel cars

New strategy: Industry statesman John Conomos believes that the industry and government need to focus their attention on women to help sales.

Industry veteran John Conomos says women will delay adoption of new technology

General News logo19 Mar 2012

THE success of electric cars and alternate-fuelled vehicles does not lie with car-makers, governments or the geeks of the world it’s in the hands of women, particularly those with children, according to Australian car industry senior statesman John Conomos.

He believes that, if the industry and governments want to raise the current very poor take-up of vehicles using alternate energy sources, they need to focus their education efforts on the ladies of the world.

Speaking at the Cars of Tomorrow conference in Melbourne last week, Mr Conomos also said there was no way that the car-makers would be able to produce enough electric and other alternate-energy vehicles to meet the expected surge in demand when energy prices spike in 2017.

Mr Conomos, who was executive chairman of Toyota Australia and a director on the Japanese company’s main board of directors when Toyota launched its hybrid program, said the purchase price of a hybrid was a major deterrent.

“The high cost of the cars has also been weighing heavily, even in the minds of fleets,” he said.

“The $10,000 premium for a hybrid over a conventional car cannot be justified in economic terms of ‘will it get payback within the 9 or 12 months that I own the car’.”

80 center imageLeft: Former executive chairman of Toyota Australia John Conomos.

But he said preconceptions and general ignorance were equally large factors behind the “very low uptake”, especially among women.

“‘Am I going to electrocute my children because the vehicle has got 500 volts? Will it blow up if I go into the water? What’s going to happen if I forget to unplug it? Will I pull the house down if the cord is still attached to the car?“These perceptions are very real and a deterrent,” he said.

And he stressed that the women of the world – wives and mothers in particular – have the power to make or break a car purchasing deal between their husbands and a dealership.

“Ladies have the power of veto. Ladies have the power to say to the guy who has done a year’s research on the car, ‘I’m not going to buy this particular EV or this hybrid’.

“He does the study, reads the magazines, does the test drive, walks his partner into the showroom and she suddenly says, ‘I don’t like it because of the all the reasons’, the preconceptions in her own mind about these factors.

“I think education, particularly devoted to ladies with families, will be an important factor in changing buying demand and buying pattern of people with EVs,” he said.

He also suggested that just simply getting more EVs and other non-petrol vehicles onto the roads would help to diminish the prejudices and uncertainty now retarding sales of alternate-fuel vehicles.

“If we get some traction and proof with vehicles on the road, then I think the prejudices will gradually diminish, not just in the minds of the fleet customer, but in the minds of the all-important private customer.”

This sentiment was backed up by another member of the panel, Simon Washington from the Queensland University of Technology.

He said he had recently spoken to a director of BMW about the Mini E trials done in Germany and the US with a fleet of more than 30 vehicles.

The cars were loaned to households for a month and he said BMW was “blown away” by the response of people in both Germany and the US.

He said the typical response was: ‘If I could have one of these cars now, I would replace my current car with one.’“The experience of the people in the households that used the Mini E was phenomenal,” said Professor Washington.

“But these are not people who would have gone down to the dealer and bought it in the first instance.

“It is exposure, it is about getting people familiar with these products and it is about getting these vehicles out into the marketplace.”

Mr Conomos also told the conference that the reluctance of consumers was being matched by the car-makers, which are not investing heavily in preparation for mass-production of EVs and other alternate-fueled vehicles.

The respected Ricardo automotive engineering and analysis group in the UK has predicted that there will be a sharp rise in energy prices by around 2017 as more economies around the world get back up to speed.

Ricardo has concluded that this will produce a big rise in the prices of transport fuels like petrol and diesel, and will spark demand for alternate-fuelled vehicles.

Mr Conomos said he did not think the industry could move fast enough to meet this projected demand.

“In terms of mass-production, I don’t think so because the car companies themselves and the component producers and all those associated with the production of cars are only predicting less than 10 per cent of the car park by year 2020 will be alternative energy vehicles,” he said.

“So the production capabilities are not ramping up anywhere near the projections of economists, who are suggesting the world should move to 30 per cent of the fleet by 2020.

“The car companies are not gearing for a high proportion of vehicles using alternate energy in the foreseeable future because they are not convinced that the consumers will buy them.

“So there is no rush to build new factories, there is no rush to ensure that suppliers gear up for untold increases in volumes to match the growth in gasoline car sales in the next few years.

“Once there’s proof that, in fact, these vehicles work, they are economic, they have a commercial benefit to the buyer, the buyers don’t have to forgive anything to buy it, then I think we will see traction.”

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