Rear corner of an electric car with charging cable attached. A wind turbine can be seen in the distance.

Electric attitudes

25 October 2021

The article at a glance

New study led by University of Cambridge researchers, based on 36,000 Facebook posts, finds that social justice and health issues impact electric vehicle uptake.

New study led by University of Cambridge researchers, based on 36,000 Facebook posts, finds that social justice and health issues impact electric vehicle uptake.

A new study led at the University of Cambridge, based on public attitudes expressed in 36,000 Facebook posts and 600,000 key words and terms, concludes that consumer uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) can be boosted by promoting the social justice and health aspects of the technology.

“The social justice and welfare dimensions are critical to this technology’s success,” noted the study. “Effective communication of social and health benefits of EV ownership can be a motivating factor for influencing higher EV uptake.”

The study published in the journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews analysed Facebook postings in the US related to EVs, using machine learning based on a PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental) framework that examines the intersection of various words and phrases.

David Reiner.
David Reiner

“Social media offers a treasure trove of information to better understand how the public views the energy transition from carbon-emitting internal combustion engine to EVs,” says study co-author Dr David Reiner, Associate Professor in Technology Policy at Cambridge Judge Business School. “We used machine learning and social network analysis to identify via Facebook posts what aspects people valued in electric vehicles, and found that social justice, clean air, better health and a shift toward EVs becoming a service industry emerging as key themes.

“The social justice theme was quite pervasive in our findings. One critical discourse that shaped EVs’ social justice and welfare dimensions was centred around the idea that ‘We all can benefit from more electric vehicles’, as this links to environmental benefits like cleaner air, less pollution, climate change mitigation, and better health for all. There was also broad agreement on the need for state support to make EVs more affordable.

“While governments around the world have launched aggressive targets for EVs, increasingly through regulatory measures rather than direct subsidies, there has been little academic research into the drivers of EV adoption. This new study helps fill that knowledge gap, and can be a useful tool for energy policymaking in this vital area,” says David.

Breaking down the PESTLE framework, the study found that Facebook posts relating to ‘political’ aspects were most related to EV tax and subsidies; posts on the ‘economy’ focused on consumer fees and EV market expansion; the ‘social’ dimension centred on job creation, investment and clean air; ‘technology’ posts centred around charging and batteries; while ‘legal’ and ‘environmental’ posts looked mostly at climate change and EV-related sustainability discussion.

The 36,000 Facebook public posts on EVs that were analysed, all posted in 2020, generated a text corpus of 600,000 words or terms that formed the data for the study’s topic modeling.

Word clouds formed from machine learning analysis of these words then showed which words were used most frequently, and which words appeared in the same posting. For example, for the “S” (social) aspect of PESTLE there is high co-occurrence of the word “adoption” with the terms “preference”, “choice”, “incentive”, “social influence”, “barriers” “consumer attitudes” and “planned behaviour”; for the “E” (economy) category, high-frequency terms include “power management”, “optimisation”, “strategy”, “design” and “consumption”.

As car manufacturers consider the potential for EVs as a subscription-based service, the study also underlines the importance of understanding how EVs are now being adopted at a community level as this will influence the future design of subscription-based and shared ownership schemes.

EV sales exceeded 2.1 million globally in 2019, with 90% of sales in China, Europe and the US, the study observes, with sales of all-electric light-duty vehicles in the US growing from zero in 2010 to 242,000 in 2019.

The study is entitled “Political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental dimensions of electric vehicle adoption in the United States: a social-media interaction analysis”. The study’s four co-authors are Dr Ramit Debnath of the Energy Policy Research Group at Cambridge Judge Business School, the International Energy Agency, the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge, and the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge; Dr Ronita Bardhan of the Centre for Natural Material Innovation; Dr David Reiner of Cambridge Judge Business School and the Energy Policy Research Group; and J.R. Miller of the Michigan Conservation Energy Forum.

This article was published on

25 October 2021.