On Acceptance Research for Alternative Fuels


In conversation with Anika Linzenich, research associate at the Chair of Communication Science, she reveals how the public perception and acceptance of alternative fuels in order to find out under what conditions the public would accept alternative fuels is investigated in scope of the Cluster The Fuel Science Center.


Project CA3-2-09: Public Perception and Acceptance of Innovative Fuels as Integral Corrective on the Fuel Demand Side

  Anika Linzenich from HCIC Copyright: © Anika Linzenich

Could you briefly introduce yourself at the beginning and tell us what role your project has in the Fuel Science Center?

My name is Anika Linzenich and I am a research associate at the Chair of Communication Science and the Human-Computer Interaction Center at RWTH Aachen University. Within the Fuel Science Center, the Chair of Communication Science investigates the public perception and acceptance of alternative fuels in order to find out under which conditions the public would accept alternative fuels, so that we achieve ecologically sustainable but also socially accepted fuel innovations in the transport sector.

Acceptance is kind of a buzzword nowadays. However, technology acceptance modeling has a long history and it deals with complex human decisions, in which individuals weigh the perceived possible gains of a technology against possible drawbacks. In this context, it is important to emphasize that scientific acceptance research differs from service and marketing approaches and is not “acceptance engineering”. Marketing efforts seek to generate a positive acceptance for a market-ready product or technology. Instead, in acceptance research we work on timely identifying the requirements for a socially accepted technology already in the stage of its technical development (in this case alternative fuels and their production routes). This way, innovative fuel solutions can be better adapted to the needs of the public – right from the start, socially accepted development pathways for alternative fuels and their production routes can be identified, instead of, conversely, trying to create acceptance for them in the end.


What if you had to explain your project in just one sentence?

In the Fuel Science Center, we investigate the acceptance requirements of different stakeholder groups (the public, but also politics and industry) for fuel innovations in the transport sector in order to directly integrate social acceptance as an objective function in the technical development and better adapt novel fuel solutions to the requirements of both environment and society.


Since the issue of acceptance and the social sience research process within the cluster are still rather unknown, we would like to know why public acceptance is relevant for a switch to alternative fuels.

The successful roll-out of alternative fuels will not only depend on whether it is technically feasible or economically viable. Another important factor will be the acceptance of the various stakeholders involved, above all the public, but also, e.g., politicians and industry. At this point, it is not sufficient to focus on the dimension of market acceptance (Would car drivers be willing to use alternative fuels?). Also, the acceptance of the production process may play an important role. If, for example, an alternative fuel requires a production step that is perceived as particularly risky, e.g., because it is associated with a risk of accident or a health hazard, the rejection of this production step can then result in the end product “alternative fuel” being rejected or failing on the market. Another example: If a production step is included in the production of the alternative fuel that requires the installation of a special type of infrastructure (such as a production plant for alternative fuels or a pipeline), it is important that this planned infrastructure is locally accepted by the residents who live in this region. Otherwise the fuel may not make it onto the market because the production route has already been rejected. That is why it is important that we take a holistic view and consider acceptance over the entire lifecycle of alternative fuels, i.e., production and use. Thus, we can identify the acceptance-relevant hotspots (meaning: the lifecycle steps which are most acceptance-relevant) and the requirements of the various stakeholder groups for these lifecycle steps.


When should acceptance be integrated into technical development?

So far, acceptance research usually follows a retrospective approach, which means that if you find out that an innovative technology is faced with acceptance problems at the market stage or even fails on the market, it is retrospectively analyzed why the market adoption has failed. But then it might usually be too late as the lack of acceptance and the negative public opinion on this technology might hamper any further roll-out. Thus, our aim at the Fuel Science Center is to move away from this retrospective approach and bring in acceptance as early as possible, preferably already at the beginning of the technical development of a fuel. If we include acceptance in technical modelling right from the start alongside technical, economic, and ecological aspects, it is possible to identify the socially accepted pathways for alternative fuels and their production routes. Then we know: If we stay within these corridors with the production route and the fuel, acceptance of this fuel would be given, but if we move outside, then there is a risk that the fuel innovation might be rejected.


How do you methodically investigate the acceptance of innovative technologies?

To investigate the acceptance of innovative technologies, such as new fuel types, we apply the entire set of methods that we have in the social sciences. In principle, we always use a mixed-methods approach where we combine qualitative methods (such as focus groups and interviews) with quantitative methods (such as surveys and conjoint analyses). This allows us to identify and quantify the benefits and barriers associated with alternative fuels as well as the acceptance conditions for alternative fuels in different stakeholder groups. Also, we can uncover where these stakeholder groups make important trade-offs between the acceptance-relevant parameters. From this we can derive relevant stakeholder profiles and recommendations how we can make the technology more acceptable and where communication and information concepts may be needed to inform the public about alternative fuels. At this point, it is important to say that acceptance is a complex construct, which means that we must first find suitable indicators to measure acceptance. That is why an important part of our research is the development of suitable measuring instruments to assess acceptance and, in an iterative process, to sharpen, validate and apply them to the application context.

  Integration of Acceptance along the Alternative-Fuel-Life-Cycles Copyright: © HCIC

What's the work like in your project? What distinguishes it from previous research approaches?

We don't want to remain at the level of our own data and results – this is often the case in acceptance research – but we also want to transfer our results into practice, into an application context. To do this, we have to find out how to translate our results in such a way that they can be used directly in the technical modelling, for example in a lifecycle analysis for alternative fuels. This promises a great gain in knowledge, because previous lifecycle analyses are often based on market models that assume a mostly rational behavior of the involved stakeholders. But human decisions are not always rational or logical – at least not from a technical expert perspective – but they are considerably influenced by affect. Therefore, these market models are not able to actually predict the public perception and acceptance of alternative fuels because they neglect these human evaluations, actions, and decisions. Thus, the integration of acceptance can really create added value here.


What are your most important research questions?

In the Fuel Science Center our most important research questions are:

  • How are alternative fuels perceived by the public?
  • Which benefits and barriers are associated with alternative fuels? And derived from this: What are the success factors and what are the constraining factors for switching to alternative fuels in the transport sector?
  • If we look at the entire lifecycle of alternative fuels: What are the acceptance hotspots along the lifecycle? This means, what are the most acceptance-relevant points in the lifecycle and how do these steps have to be designed so that they really meet the requirements of the various stakeholders?
  • Another important question is: Which application contexts of alternative fuels are most accepted? There is a whole spectrum of different applications; in addition to private transport, there is also aviation or shipping, and from a technical perspective these sectors differ in their suitability for the use of alternative fuels. Here we want to add the perspective of the public, i.e., laypersons. Which field of application do they prefer most? What are the public's requirements for alternative fuels in the different contexts and what do individually tailored information concepts have to look like in order to inform the public about alternative fuels?
  • If we focus on the area of car traffic, the question also arises: What are the evaluation criteria that drivers use when they evaluate alternative fuels and how do they weight them when they decide whether they want to use an alternative fuel or not? Also important is the question of whether there are perhaps different user groups or consumer profiles that differ in their requirements for alternative fuels and their weighting of fuel evaluation criteria.
  • And finally, the big methodological issue: How can the direct integration of acceptance into a technical lifecycle analysis be accomplished? What are the methodological requirements, where are the biggest pitfalls that we have to overcome and how can we find solutions?

What are – in a nutshell – the objectives of the project?

As mentioned at the beginning, the goals of our project are to better adapt fuel solutions to the requirements of different stakeholder groups. This involves identifying what their acceptance conditions for alternative fuels are and quantifying and weighting them. At the methodological level, we want to find out how to include acceptance as an objective function directly in fuel development and process optimization for alternative fuels so that we can identify the socially accepted development pathways for alternative fuels.


What role does cooperation with technical institutes play in your research? Which institutes do you cooperate with?

Cooperation is a very important factor for our research in the Fuel Science Center because only the interplay of engineering and acceptance research allows to identify problems, research questions, but also solutions for a socially acceptable alternative fuel development. We want to bring our acceptance results into technical modelling and into an application context and test them against reality. Given these aims, we seek a close cooperation and methodological interconnection between acceptance researchers, technical modelers, the fuel experts, the lifecycle experts, the energy system experts, and the engine experts. Here we have to develop a mutual understanding of how we conduct research in the various disciplines, how we set up models (e.g., we have to find out where the most important similarities lie, but also the differences which we need to bridge). This requires developing a common language. As shown, the question of how we can integrate acceptance into technical modelling cannot be answered by us alone. That is why we are quite happy that we have already started many well-running, insightful, and successful cooperations, especially in the CA3, for example with the Chair of Technical Thermodynamics (LTT), the Department of Chemical Engineering, Process Systems Engineering (AVT.SVT), the Chair and Institute of Power Systems and Power Economics (IAEW), the Chair of Operations Management (OM), and also with the biologists from the Institute for Environmental Research (Bio V), and we are also planning a joint exchange with the Institute for Combustion Engines (VKA).


Can you tell us something about these cooperations? What have you already investigated together?

For example, we cooperate with Prof. Bardow and the co-workers from LTT – with whom we have already shared several years of successful research cooperation in other projects. Together we are investigating the acceptance of alternative fuels over the entire fuel lifecycle from production to use. In our first study within the FSC, we jointly investigated how an accepted production scenario for CO2-based alternative fuels could look like. With regard to different CO2 sources, different CO2 transport modes, and the size of the facility, we asked ourselves what the best-case scenario would look like from acceptance perspective. What would the most accepted production route look like? In a second step, we also investigated whether the provision of technically correct information input changes the perception of laypersons, so that they suddenly prefer other concepts when they find out what the motivation is behind it and what technical advantages the various production scenarios have.

We have another cooperation with Prof. Mitsos’ group. In this collaboration, we focused on alternative fuel as end product. In a joint study we looked into the question what the most important evaluation criteria are that drivers apply when deciding whether they want to use an alternative fuel. Among other things, we examined how drivers evaluate pollutant emissions in comparison to usage-related factors such as fuel availability, fuel costs, and range. We have presented the first results of this cooperation together with AVT.SVT at this year's Fuel Science Center Conference and we were delighted by the positive feedback we received there. Moreover, we have published our results in a joint research paper. Writing was challenging due to the interdisciplinary task of merging perspectives though joyful. We have already planned some new steps for the future, e.g., we would like to broaden our scope a little and investigate the preferences and acceptance for different application contexts of alternative fuels. At this point, we also have a great synergy potential to other projects in which we work at our institute, so that I think we will get very interesting results.

A third cooperation we have in the Fuel Science Center is with Prof. Moser and the co-workers from IAEW. Here we have investigated what an accepted infrastructure planning for the production of alternative fuels might look like. This means that we have examined laypeople’s requirements for accepted production facilities for alternative fuels, e.g., in terms of emissions such as noise and smell. We also looked at the effect of possible compensations or incentives in case such a production facility is built, such as creating new jobs or reduced fuel prices, and the preferences for the energy supply of the fuel production facility to unveil what the preferred or accepted production scenario would look like.

These are the most important cooperations we have had in the FSC so far. But of course we also have many other points of contact around them, also with other chairs, where we are currently tackling new issues in order to systematically uncover the acceptance-relevant parameters for alternative fuels and their production routes.


Regarding the Chair of Communication Science: What are you researching and why do you specialize in alternative fuels?

At the Chair of Communication Science, we are not only concerned with the acceptance of alternative fuels, but we examine the acceptance of a whole portfolio of different technologies that are gaining in relevance against the background of current global challenges, such as climate change, finite fossil resources, and demographic change, and that address various important pillars of society. A major focus of our working group lies on the energy and mobility sector: We investigate acceptance conditions for different energy technologies, e.g., renewable energies and associated storage power stations, as well as e-mobility, alternative fuels, and autonomous driving, to name a few examples. New propulsion technologies are an important aspect in the context of a mobility shift towards lower pollutant and CO2 emissions in transport. That is why we look at the acceptance of alternative fuels as an application context. And the interesting thing is: If you investigate the acceptance of different technologies in the energy and mobility sector, you can mirror the results that you get from one application context to check whether it is similar in the other technological context or whether there are differences – meaning is it a technology-specific effect or does it occur across technologies?


What do you enjoy most about working at the Fuel Science Center?

What I enjoy most and find very exciting is the high level of interdisciplinarity in the Fuel Science Center, because our work is not about stopping at the level of disciplinary method development, but about trying to transfer our models into an application context. By combining our methodological approaches in the different disciplines, I win valuable and interesting insights into new fields of research, which I find particularly exciting. I learn a lot from understanding each other's methods, finding out where the similarities and differences lie, and developing ways to overcome or bridge these differences. This further development of methods is a highly innovative and challenging approach – to find out how we can succeed in translating our results in such a way that they fit into the technical modelling so that in the end we achieve fuel solutions that can be implemented from a technical point of view and that are both ecologically sustainable and socially acceptable. I think my study background in Technical Communication, which I studied here at RWTH Aachen University, is of great advantage to my research and facilitates this challenge because the course of studies enables the students to think in both directions (engineering science and communication science) and to combine the two perspectives. This combination of the different perspectives is becoming increasingly important in the context of the mega challenges we are confronted with today. And I find it very exciting that I can apply the knowledge and skills I learned during my studies here in the FSC and put it into practice. From acceptance research perspective, what I really enjoy about my work is understanding the communication and interaction between people and technology and making human decisions under risk and acceptance conditions visible for innovative technologies.


We would like to thank you for giving us an insight into the everyday life of the CA3-2-09 project! Do you have any final words that you would like to say to our readers?

I would like to thank the Fuel Science Center for giving us the opportunity to integrate our results into technical modeling and test our models against reality – I find that very exciting because it means an important step for our method development as we do not stop at the level of our own results but put them into reality. I would also like to say thanks to our cooperation partners at the Fuel Science Center and I think it's great that our joint research is working so well.