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With pump prices so high, why is our use of alternative fuel technologies so low?

Despite record oil prices, concerns about global pollution levels and dependence on foreign energy, Canadians’ 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 Canada and the US 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.

Canadian and American consumers have similar awareness and adoption behaviors toward alternative fuel technologies, but significantly differ in their top reason for considering such a vehicle: Canadians, along with most respondents across the globe, want cleaner emissions and less pollution, while the majority of Americans surveyed want to reduce dependence on foreign energy.

The 2007 Honda Fit

Canadians 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. Consumers’ perception of these vehicles’ limited driving range was the second most cited reason among everyone surveyed.  

Canadians are most familiar with hybrid electric vehicles over other alternatives to conventional engines, though surprisingly, less than 1% of the respondents surveyed currently own or previously owned 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 Canada, this type of engine is the least familiar of the three technologies mentioned in the survey, with 30% of Canadians never having heard of direct injection diesels.

Powered by ethanol

“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 familiarity with 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 Canada is how to get enough newer diesels into the market to expedite the same change in perception that has taken place in Europe.”
While 91% of North Americans are familiar with alternative fuel sources such as natural gas, ethanol, methanol or bio diesel, less than 4% of Canadian respondents currently own or previously owned a vehicle that uses this technology.

One major hurdle may be fueling infrastructures in Canada.
“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.

Future Fuel?

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.”

“The principal perceived benefit of most of these technologies is a reduced impact on the environment, which while important, does not tend to strongly affect individual purchase behavior in most markets,” notes Miller.  “As a result, consumers have not driven the demand for such vehicles.  Instead, these vehicles have been regarded as requiring the consumer to pay a higher price and make unacceptable tradeoffs in areas like performance, vehicle size and design.” 

But hybrid vehicles may be leading a change in consumer attitude in markets where they are being promoted aggressively by well-respected manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda.  And the required sacrifices are disappearing with some new hybrids actually boasting better acceleration than the vehicles’ conventional engine options. 

“The environment is becoming increasingly important to the consumer,” concludes Miller.  “Now they have an option to ‘do the right thing’ for society without giving up the things that matter to them as individual vehicle buyers.”


An overview of hybrids, diesels, compacts and flex-fuel vehicles

Only 35% percent of the car shoppers recently polled by Autobytel say their current vehicle gets at least 10.6 km per litre. Yet 71% say that their next vehicle purchase must get at least 10.6/l, while 43% say it will have to get better than 12.7/l – and 15% say it will have to get at least 17.0 km/l.

While this reflects a stunning shift in car-buying priorities, equally remarkable are the automakers’ efforts to keep pace. In fact, with all the unfamiliar new models and technologies hitting showrooms, the factories may actually be building fuel-efficient/alternative-fuel cars faster than consumers can learn about them.

To help car shoppers close this knowledge gap – and make smart buying decisions in what’s becoming something of a ‘wild west’ marketplace – Autobytel’s auto experts have created Clearing the Air at Autobytel. This unique buying guide covers the four basic categories of fuel-efficient vehicles – hybrids, diesels, small cars and flex-fuel vehicles – detailing the pros, cons, key issues, and available vehicle options for each.

Clearing the Air also provides context and clarity for issues important to today’s environmentally- and fuel-conscious buyers, including an explanation of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), EPA and emissions ratings – and how these standards may be changing in the near future. Here’s a brief overview from Clearing the Air

We know, we know. Diesels are loud, smoky and you can only buy the fuel at truck stops. Right? … Maybe not. Coming soon is a new kind of diesel vehicle, powered by cleaner fuel called Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD), and by quieter, more powerful and efficient engines that are clean enough to be legal throughout North America. Starting with a basic definition of what a diesel engine is, to the potential impact of these upcoming changes and the pros and cons of diesel-powered vehicles, Clearing the Air makes sense of it all.

2006 Jaguar XJ 2.7 Diesel

  Better fuel mileage than gasoline and flex-fuel vehicles, comparable fuel economy to hybrids
  Markedly better emissions than the diesels of yore
  Diesel engines are traditionally more durable than
gas-powered engines
  Despite improvements, still produces higher overall emissions than E85 or hybrid vehicles and many gasoline-powered vehicles
  Diesel is generally more expensive than gasoline
  Limited availability of diesel fuel at gas stations


All hybrids are not created equal. V6 “power” hybrids like the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Honda Accord Hybrid and the Lexus RX 400h and GS 450h offer excellent torque and improved efficiency compared to similar vehicles – but not compared to four-cylinder “economy” hybrids like the Toyota Prius, Ford Escape Hybrid, or Honda Civic Hybrid. Economy hybrids have other bonuses as well: They rate a larger tax incentive compared to other, less efficient hybrids, and may qualify for access into HOV lanes in some states.

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid

  Low emissions, better for the environment
  Reduces oil consumption
  Best fuel economy available
  Tax incentives and potential access to HOV lanes
(laws and incentives vary)
  Generally higher-priced than comparable gas, diesel or flex-fuel vehicles
  Compromised performance
  Limited availability
  Potential long-term issue regarding nickel-hydride
battery recycling


Flexible-fuel vehicles are a great idea that may one day prove to be a significant answer to our fuel consumption needs … but not quite yet. Led by domestic automakers, flexible-fuel vehicles run on gasoline or E85, which is an 85% to 15% mix of ethanol and gasoline. That makes it a clean fuel, at least in terms of greenhouse emissions. It also reduces our oil consumption, and even offers a slight improvement in performance. Unfortunately, E85 is only available at a few hundred pumps nationwide. And while E85 costs about the same per/gallon as gas, it’s less efficient – meaning drivers actually spend more to drive the same number of miles.

General Motors E85 Ethanol FlexFuel official pace truck winds around the Daytona International Speedway track

  Cleaner burning fuel, better tailpipe emissions
than gas
  Reduces overall oil consumption
  Same sticker price as a non-flex-fuel vehicles
  Slight improvement in performance vs. gasoline
n Runs on either gas or E85
  E85 ends up costing more than gas per mile of driving
  Lack of fuel stations carrying E85 fuel
  E85 is a less efficient fuel than gas
  Still requires significant petroleum to produce
  Mostly only trucks and SUVs available as flex-fuel


Small cars are big again, and the contemporary offerings include many stylish cars that maximize interior space, offer great fuel economy and are inexpensive to build (and buy). Still, there are potential drawbacks: Shoppers, for example, should be aware of emissions ratings that can be less than what they expect. The 2007 Honda Fit, for example, has an emissions rating of LEV (Low Emissions Vehicle), which some may view as quite poor for a subcompact. And, as always, there are performance and safety tradeoffs inherent to small car design: No matter how many air bags, a subcompact will not fare too well against a large SUV; and performance-wise, most small cars lack the punch and quiet ride we’ve grown accustomed to enjoying.

  Excellent fuel economy
  Nimble driving character
  Improved interior space vs. past small cars
n Low sticker price
  Low sticker price
  Most models produce low emissions
  Loss of performance
  Questionable safety based on weight disadvantage
  Some subcompacts rate poorly in emissions testing
  Mostly only trucks and SUVs available as flex-fuel