Commentary: On electric plug-in cars, men and women two different sides of same coin

This post was written by Nicolette Caperello, a researcher at the Plug-In Hybrid & Electric Research Center at University of California, Davis.

When discussing electric cars, it seems women are more practical than men, and that is ironic because carmakers are focusing their design on male preferences. A recent UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) report found that women are more focused than men on adapting their driving habits to match the advantages and capabilities of plug-in electric cars. But pre-market experience and early plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) sales in the United States suggest that gender is playing a role and indicate that men are more willing to take the plunge than women in the new technology.

In a study based on two sets of focus groups conducted in 2011 and 2012, it was revealed that women and men engaged their electric cars differently despite having similar driving experiences. Women saw the rapidly fluctuating range indicator as untrustworthy and inaccurate; they adapted by doubling or tripling the amount of range they required per trip. Men saw the “guessometer” as an exhilarating challenge and pushed the battery to the edge of its capability in order to develop their own measure of what their battery was capable of. Women in PEV focus groups talked about how they were managing existing conditions and accomplishing immediate travel needs and importantly, many appreciated the benefits of at home charging. Men, on the other hand, tended to treat their PEV more as an R & D project, exhibiting a stronger interest in the future of the technology and the advent of fast chargers.

Descriptions of the early buyers and lessees of PEVs in California indicate that so far, women have purchased or leased only 29% of Nissan Leafs, 24 % of Chevrolet Volts and 16% of Tesla Model S vehicles. That contrasts with national averages that show that women make or are involved in over half of all new and used vehicle purchase decisions in the United States. Women are more likely to work at home or close to home and consequently drive shorter distances to work compared to men and they tend to do more non-work driving such as errands and transporting passengers. In other words, women would be more likely to be able to benefit greatly from the operational advantages of a PEV than men, all things equal, especially given their preference for at home fueling.

In light of these differences, policy makers and vehicle manufacturers would do well to increase their focus on women’s use and future preferences for PEVs or else face the possibility that women’s voice in the buying habits may slow the future penetration of PEVs in the marketplace.