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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Wired for Gasoline: Consumers and Value Construction in the Plug-in Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Market


The development of Plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) represents the introduction of an alternative technology into a deeply embedded market—as automobiles and gasoline have been linked to one another through multiple and overlapping cultural, political, and technological developments since the early 1900s. The emergence of a market for PEVs takes place within an existing transportation system based on privately owned individual internal combustion engines that is entrenched in myriad symbolic, material, spatial, and habitual ways, and influences nearly all aspects of social life. This dissertation explores the matrix of political, economic, and cultural elements that combine to create a historically contingent context for the PEV market, and analyzes consumption within this context to offer a case study of consumer behavior in an emerging market. This research uses qualitative data, collected from semi-structured in-depth interviews, group workshops, and focus groups during a three year period, to identify the prevailing qualities consumers attribute to PEVs, and explain how they provide symbolic and functional value for consumers.

This dissertation advances theories of valuation using the PEV market as a case study to illustrate how consumers negotiate value in an emerging industrial market. The author argues that consumers perceive that a given quality (or qualities) of a PEV produces a particular performance which becomes, if viewed as desirable, a source of value. The value an individual consumer derives from the expected performance of a PEV is translated into an amount which they can then compare to the price of the vehicle when deciding whether to make an exchange. PEV drivers make their purchase expecting their vehicle to provide simultaneous performances in their physical state, their social position, and their imaginative world. The author found that the environmental and technological qualities consumers assign to PEVs offer important sources of physical, positional, and symbolic value beyond the financial benefits often assessed in studies of PEV adoption.

The author argues that much of what is valued in the PEV market reflects the broader social values informed by sustainability ideology and the entrenched system of automobility. Moving from explaining sustainability policy narratives to describing dominant trends in analyses of consumers in the PEV market, the researcher found that sustainability discourse, including analyses of pro-environmental behavior, acts as an influential discourse that shapes consumers’ processes of valuation and evaluation of PEVs. In their narratives of (e)valuation, consumers attributed qualities (and subsequently value) to PEVs in ways that reproduced the myths of individual responsibility and technological utopianism based on ideological commitments to sustainability, even as they negotiated the boundaries of both. The relationship between sustainability ideology and PEVs reveals how institutions, ideology, and the socio-historical context of a market shape value creation as much as the interpretive activities of consumers.

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