Land of Confusion

  John Eichberger |  March 1, 2018

Driving home from a congressional hearing at which I was asked, "Can we make this any more confusing?" regarding the consumer experience when refueling their vehicle, my radio blared this 1986 Genesis song

“Too many men [gender neutral I am sure]
There’s too many people
Making too many problems
And not much love to go round
Can’t you see this is a land of confusion”

This version of "Land of Confusion" was a cover by the hard rock band Disturbed (a great version, by the way. I also highly recommend their haunting cover of "Sound of Silence.") The coincidental intersection of these events keeps playing in my head and got me thinking about the customer and what we are asking him to do when fueling his car.

The March 7, 2018, hearing was called to explore the “Future of Transportation and Fuels,” and I was invited to share my thoughts on how the market might evolve over time. (My official testimony here) I thought it was a constructive discussion and was impressed with the comments of my fellow panelists (their statements are available from the Energy and Commerce Committee’s website).

In response to that question asked by a member of the committee, I said “Yes, we can make it more confusing.” I held back, “especially if Congress gets too involved.” (I may be learning some diplomacy after all.)

The fuels and vehicles industries continue to discuss potential changes to both the vehicle powertrains and the sources of energy that power them, whether that energy be liquid, gaseous or electric. But are we really thinking about the ability of consumers to make informed decisions when fueling their vehicles?

I was on a panel several years ago where I suggested that we cannot count on consumers to make informed decisions because they are distracted and don’t want to think about what they are doing when fueling their car. I was challenged by someone who argued that consumers make difficult decisions all the time, such as health care coverage, home mortgages, etc., so I can’t assume they are incapable of making a decision about which fuel to buy. This was several years ago so I did not take the bait and dive into the “good” decisions made about health care and mortgages, but instead noted that people make such big decisions once or twice every few years – they fuel their vehicles once or twice every week. The magnitude of scale here is important – repetitive activities require simplicity and habitual behavior.

Unfortunately, we as consumers are not always great at this transaction that we do a lot – in fact, Americans make more than 42 million fuel purchases every day! Now think about this - how many times have you seen a car going down the road with their gas cap dangling free? Even worse, retailers tell me that at least once per week someone tries to drive off with a nozzle still in their car!

Consumers are on their phones, arguing with their kids, trying to do a thousand other things while grabbing a nozzle and sticking it into their car. They act instinctively – buying gasoline is not something they like to do, it is something they have to do. So, they want it to be as frictionless as possible. But now we have dispensers that offer Regular, Midgrade, Premium, Super Premium, E15, E85/Flex Fuel, diesel, biodiesel, DEF, and gas station TV. And oh, by the way, please enter your zip code to secure your transaction, swipe your loyalty card, select your type of car wash, opt in for a receipt, order a sandwich from the pump, and and and….

None of these things are bad – they are all designed to give the consumer more value for their transaction, more bang for their buck. But for the consumer who has a cell phone stapled to their ear, a cup of coffee sitting on the roof, a kid screaming in the back seat, and who doesn’t want to be there anyway – how can we provide the best customer experience?

Fast forward. Now we want to offer something new – a new energy source for their vehicle. This energy source will deliver more miles per dollar, will reduce emissions, will boost performance and raise our communities to a new level of prosperity and sustainability. That is awesome, but how are you going to penetrate the noise to educate the consumer who does not want to be educated?

I say this at every single Fuels Institute event – you may produce the best vehicle ever manufactured and provide the most revolutionary energy for that vehicle, but if the consumer cannot access it or does not want to buy it, you just wasted billions of dollars and years of your life for nothing.

In my opening statement to Congress, I urged the Committee to be suspicious of predictions of imminent disruptive change – most are focused on one causal factor and dismiss the numerous other factors that influence consumer behavior. One of these factors has to be the interface of consumers with the market – how will a new technology, a new fuel, get through the noise? Historically, disruptive events delivered to the consumer a tangible, immediate benefit, something that improved their quality of life and compelled them to transition to the new technology. What can possibly deliver such value that it can cut through the clutter and capture that distracted consumer?

“Can we make this any more confusing?”

This question was targeted at the marketing of a particular fuel product, but I believe it resonates on a much deeper level and highlights something on which we must remain laser focused. Choice is a wonderful thing in a free market, but informed choice is even better.

The consumer confusion we witness is the result of a myriad of factors that compete for the consumers’ attention. How can we make the experience of choice more frictionless? How can we educate the consumer who does not want to learn? How might we introduce a new powertrain, a new energy source in such a way that the consumer will recognize the inherent value of the new option and be able to make an informed decision regarding their transportation options?

I remain consistently in awe of the ingenuity of engineers. But the best technology, the best energy source means nothing if we cannot convince the consumer to adopt it. We must start spending more time understanding the consumer, developing strategies to cut through the noise and provide them with a meaningful choice. Otherwise, we will continue to spin our wheels.

“Can’t you see
This is the land of confusion.
This is the world we live in
And these are the hands we’re given
Use them and let’s start trying
To make it a place worth [driving] in.”