In 1962, professor of communications Everett Rogers published his theory on the adoption of innovation. He said before a new idea goes mainstream, it needs significant support from participants in a social network. Since there was no internet back then, social networks meant friends, family, co-workers, and other people we interact with on a regular basis. Rogers’ theories can presumably provide insight into when we can expect electric cars to go mainstream.
“What the people around you do influences you in two ways,” says Reuven Sussman, who works for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. “One way you get information is from what other people do. The other is you get some social pressure. There’s a desire to sort of fit in with your social group and do what others are doing for that reason.”
Sussman goes on to say that social pressure engulfs more people after the second wave of adopters take up a technology and spread the word. “People who are the most passionate about these topics are not always the ones that are the best influencers.” But when opinion leaders adopt, they can readily become champions. “People that you know within your social network are generally more credible and trustworthy and likable. They’re in your network for some reason.”
Professor Rogers theorized that 15% of the potential market must have accepted a new idea or technology before it can go mainstream. But after that milestone is reached, the idea or technology catches on rapidly. Often acceptance by 60% of the market happens within a short time afterwards.
It’s not hard to test the Rogers’ theories. Think of recent innovations like HDTV or smartphones. HDTV was not even a thing until 1993. For about a decade afterwards, prices dropped and it slowly gained ground. Then all of a sudden — or so it seems — HDTVs were everywhere. Today, you can’t give an old television away. Nobody wants one.
The smartphone has had a similar trajectory. In the ’80s, a few early adopters had bag phones. They were large, cumbersome devices with a battery that weighed about 10 pounds. Then came the iPhone and everything changed. Today, almost everyone in the world has one. You can probably think of other examples of ideas that seemed far out at one time that suddenly took off. From microwave ovens to Facebook, the theories advanced by professor Rogers are being validated every day.
Which brings us to electric automobiles. If you visit Gas2 on a regular basis, chances are you are already believe that electric cars are a better way to get from Point A to Point B. Even if you don’t own an electric car, you are having an impact on the people you know. You are a champion of innovation. What you say influences others.
Right now in the United States, electric cars account for about 1% of all new car sales. In other words, there is a long way to go yet before electric cars go mainstream — maybe as much as a decade or more. But don’t despair. Attitudes are beginning to change. At the Paris auto show this week, the buzz is all about electric cars. In Norway, more than 25% of all new cars are electric. China is pushing hard to get more electric cars on its roads.
Within 10 years, the world will reach that 15% mark professor Rogers says is so critical. After that happens, watch out. The change will be rapid. Soon, internal combustion cars will be just a curiosity, something for museums and historians to ponder. Does 10 years seem like a long time? It’s not, in the general scheme of things. The transition from mainframes to personal computers took 30 years. Why should the changeover to electric cars take any less?