Educating the Clueless

National campaign targets FFV drivers
By Holly Jessen | January 17, 2011

The goal is simple. Sell more gallons of ethanol.

One way to get there is by educating drivers who aren’t even aware they have a flex-fuel vehicle (FFV), says Doug Durante, executive director of the Clean Fuels Foundation. If even two out of every 10 people who don’t know about FFVs start using E85 or a higher blend in their vehicles, it has a big impact. “There are 9 million [FFV] cars on the road, if we got 1 million of those people to start using ethanol regularly, that would be huge,” he says. “But if we got 1 million, why not 4 million—why not half of them? Why not a goal of half?”

The National FFV Awareness Campaign, announced by the Clean Fuels Foundation late last year, was created for just that purpose. Clean Fuels is working with the USDA and the U.S. EPA, among other supporting organizations, to expand public awareness of fueling options for FFVs.

According to private and government surveys, as many as 75 percent of FFV owners don’t know they can fuel with E85 or other blends. There’s so much need for education that Durante calls it a nearly “blank canvas.” While some might see reaching all those drivers as a challenge, Durante sees it differently. Even if only a few FFV drivers are educated and start using ethanol, that is, in his eyes, a success. “It would be hard to not succeed on this, it really would,” he says.

This isn’t the first example of government support of an awareness program, says Burl Haigwood, the program manager for FFV awareness campaign. The government has also helped spread the word about the importance of wearing seat belts, driving the speed limit and the dangers of drunk driving or smoking. In the 1980s, people weren’t fully aware of the dangers of smoking. Today, 90 percent of consumers don’t know the impact that imported oil has on their lives, he says.

The national campaign will kick off in Ohio. That state was selected because it already has significant number of E85 or blender pumps, Durante says. It wouldn’t be as helpful to do FFV education in an area where few people drive FFVs or the E85 or higher ethanol blends simply aren’t available. “You want to pick a place where you can make a difference,” he says, adding that four of Ohio’s biggest cities have at least 20 E85 or blender pumps.

There’s additional interest in Texas and Florida, where pilot programs were conducted, and Georgia, Kansas, Nebraska, and Washington, D.C., will be among the first areas for the FFV awareness program to concentrate on. “Wherever there is interest we’re looking at it,” he says.

Ultimately, Durante wants to reach large numbers of people through already established channels. For example, Clean Fuels is working to gain the cooperation of state transportation departments, so drivers can be educated about FFVs and E85 when they receive notification that it’s time to renew drivers license, registration or complete an emissions check. That would take advantage of a virtually free communications network to reach large numbers of FFV drivers. “It’s difficult to do by onesies and twosies,” he explains.

Other opportunities include putting up signs at retail stations, emissions testing stations or state department of motor vehicle locations. The idea is to get drivers to start thinking about FFVs and tell them how to find out whether they own one. Clean Fuels will provide resources, such as signs, banners, pamphlets and more to help spread the message. “There’s very efficient ways we can reach these people when you do a statewide approach,” he says.

The organization will also work to get the auto industry further involved in FFV education efforts. Clean Fuels already has a good relationship with car makers such as Chrysler, General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., which have committed to producing a minimum of 50 percent of its new vehicles as FFV, Durante says. Through the national FFV awareness campaign, Durante would like to see auto dealership training programs to help them educate customers about FFVs. For example, some older FFVs don’t have the FFV badge that newer FFVs do. Perhaps dealership mechanics could provide those drivers with pamphlets about FFVs before the car goes back out on the street. “That would be a huge thing if we got the auto industry doing that,” he tells EPM.

Another part of the awareness campaign is working to get more E85 and blender pumps installed. In the fall, the U.S. DOE clarified that American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds could be used for refueling infrastructure, including blender pumps. There had been some confusion on that in the past Durante says, adding that DOE funding for Clean Cities grants had only been for E85 infrastructure and not blender pumps. It was good news to find that the recovery act money wasn’t under the same rules, he says. Ohio has some recovery act funding that has yet to be committed to a specific project, he adds. The Clean Fuels Foundation has been meeting with the Ohio Department of Energy to see if those funds can be put into fueling infrastructure. 

Another one of Durante’s goals is to get more engaged with the U.S. DOE. That organization has been fixated on E85 because that’s the only blend that is officially defined as a renewable fuel. However, using other blends, from E15 on up is an avenue for meeting the goals in the renewable fuel standard. “Our fixation with E85 probably needs to be modernized,” he says. “There are a lot of other blends that might be used for a lot of other reasons.”

To get started, the program received an unspecified amount of seed money from the USDA and EPA. On a list of more than 20 supporting organizations is the American Coalition for Ethanol, Growth Energy, Chrysler and even individual ethanol producers. More supporters are needed, either through financial contributions, by endorsing the program or other ways. “There’s a lot of ways people can help,” Durante says.