Logo: University of Southern California

So You Drive a Prius – What Does That Say About You?

ISI Psychologist Nicole Sintov wants to know what influences consumers’ decisions to purchase electric cars.
By: Natalia Velez
October 29, 2015 —

Sintov (third to the right) and her students at the LA Cleantech Incubator carshow.     (Photo credit: Image provided by professor Sintov)
Most of the world’s cities, including Los Angeles, lack the extensive public transportation network that makes it easy to get around. That’s why the car remains king in most places. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation sector is responsible for 27 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of main contributors of air contamination.

Given that it costs billions and takes years to improve cities’ public transportation systems, cars will remain the predominant mode of transport in most places for the foreseeable future. With this in mind, environmentalists and transportation experts believe that widespread adoption of electric cars could make an important contribution to cleaner air.

What would make such environmentally friendly vehicles more appealing to the masses? That, among other questions, fascinates Nicole Sintov, a psychologist at the USC Viterbi Information Sciences Institute (ISI).

Sintov works with ISI engineers to determine the main factors behind electric vehicle adoption. She is trying to understand whether customers have positive or negative views on electric vehicles, and what it would take to increase adoption rates. This information is then useful to determine which messaging strategies would be most effective.

“From a consumer behavior perspective, my work focuses on finding out what people’s perspectives on adopting EV’s is,” Sintov said. “However, this is part of a bigger project in which engineers at ISI are looking at the impact of EV adoption on the power grid.”

As innovative and environmentally friendly as electric vehicles may be, the transition from fuel to electric is rough. Electric vehicles usually have higher purchase and maintenance costs, and cities do not yet provide sufficient charging infrastructure to make customers feel comfortable.

One of the most common concerns potential customers experience when it comes to EV adoption is range anxiety. This is, the fear that the car’s battery will run out before reaching its final destination.

“Let’s say you just want to go to San Diego,” Sintov explained. “If you’re driving an EV, you will have to stop somewhere on your way there. One of many questions is how to get people past that barrier.”

However, researchers have already come up with several ideas to tackle the problem of charging infrastructure. For instance, one option is creating an appointment system where people can register at charging stations so that, psychologically, charging their vehicles doesn’t seem like a big deal.

“Another thing is that, even if car buyers don’t end up traveling in their vehicles, the idea of buying a car and knowing that they won’t be able to travel in it if they wanted to is a not very attractive,” Sintov said.

Car buyers’ motivations in buying an electric vehicle are quite diverse. The biggest motivator has nothing to do with the practical aspects; it is more related to the idea of image and identity. Above price, practical and environmental considerations, customers are concerned about what having an EV stands for.

“‘What does an EV say about you?’ That is the question that makes people have positive beliefs about EV’s and willing to pay more for them than for conventional vehicles,” Sintov said.

Sintov is a conservation psychologist, which means that she studies the interaction between human behavior and the natural environment. Her work focuses on how to get people to make more sustainable decisions. She received her Ph.D. from USC and has been working at ISI for four years.

Her study, which was presented at the American Psychological Association’s Conference earlier this year, contributes to the limited literature supporting the role of symbolic attributes, image and EV adoption. It is also part of the Smart Grid project, an initiative in which USC’s ISI has teamed up with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power,UCLA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory in order to develop an electric utility grid that can meet the city’s increasing electric needs- the Smart Grid.

“Nicole’s work produces knowledge about electric vehicle adoption that we can then leverage in order to include the customer into the smart grid environment,” said Michael Orosz, principal investigator of the consumer behavior division on the Smart Grid project at USC. “Gaining this type of insight would allow us to address environment and sustainability issues as well as the operation of the smart grid.”