The way that people drive and recharge their hybrid electric vehicles affects the impact they have on clean air. And this has become the subject of research that involved master student Shashank Thakkar as part of his Master in Management programme at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). Remarkably, this is one of the first empirical studies to reveal in detail the charging and driving behaviour of drivers of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs); more specifically, the field experiment aimed to discover the effects of ‘nudges’ and incentives in what BMW called the city’s Electric Zone in Rotterdam, a virtual fence around the City of Rotterdam that could be sensed by a developed App. It appeared that drivers appreciated the value of the electric zone and were willing to switch to all-electric mode within the e-zone – so the zone does actually encourage the type of driving that reduces CO2 emissions and improves the city’s air quality.

Plug-in hybrids: does ‘going all-electric’ in the city need incentives?

The research team at RSM’s Erasmus Centre for Future Energy Business supervised the master student as part of the Electric City Drive pilot project, run by a consortium comprising the City of Rotterdam and BMW. This five-month pilot project was set up to encourage the use of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) in Rotterdam’s city centre. The study consisted of two surveys among the participating drivers and a quantitative analysis of driving and charging behaviour data from the field experiment.

Data drives behaviour

The Electric City Drive team concluded that PHEV drivers (or at least those who volunteered to be part of the experiment) are apparently willing to keep the electric motors in their vehicles fully charged so that they can choose when to drive electrically (the vehicles also operate perfectly well on their petrol motors). Based on the experiment, participants would be motivated to continue e-driving and charging, even without the smartphone app that was created especially for the pilot project. Drivers also indicated that they chose to drive a PHEV primarily, because it was an eco-friendly option for motoring. Participants whose charging costs were reimbursed, revealed increased recharging intensity and more kilometres driven electrically

Researcher Dr. Jan van Dalen says the experiment shows PHEV drivers value the transparency of their data, and actually do use these data to review the environmental effects and impact of their driving behaviour. PHEV drivers seem to be keen to switch to all-electric power within the Rotterdam e-zone. Compared with previous research, drivers are about 15 per cent more likely to switch to all-electric in their hybrid vehicles if they are aware that incentives are in place, and up to 43 per cent more likely to do so within the e-zone.

Better air quality? You choose …

The use of PHEVs is a step towards the complete electrification of car transport and the reduction of fossil fuel-related greenhouse gas emissions. PHEVs combine battery-driven electric motors and petrol engines, so offer a greater range compared to fully electric vehicles. However, the extent to which PHEVs help to reduce emissions in urban areas is highly dependent on what drivers decide to do; how often they charge the electric motors in their vehicles – and so have electric power available when desired – and whether or not to switch to all-electric driving when they enter the city. The best effect on air quality is when drivers choose to drive electrically. Which means they must charge batteries regularly. The range of BMW PHEVs when using solely their electric motors is about 40 kilometres. This is specific for the PHEVs sold in this region.

Electric City Drive

The pilot project was launched as an appeal to drivers of PHEV BMWs in Rotterdam – 50 of them volunteered to become part of the study, which ran between September 2018 and January 2019. In the pilot the driving and charging activities of PHEV drivers were recorded in a mobile app, developed by BMW. Different nudges and incentives were applied during the six phases of the experiment. It tested, among other parameters, the gamification of incentives, as well as monetary incentives. Dr Jan van Dalen: “If we benchmark the results of this experiment with those implied by an existing academic study, the average percentage of electric driving in total is about 15 percentage points higher in this experiment, and within the e-zone even 43 percentage points higher than the implied utility factor of 50 per cent (where no nudging or incentives were used). These empirical outcomes are specific for the PHEVs in this region – with 40 kilometers all electric range and consistent with an assumed positive impact of experimental incentives on electric driving. Individual monetary incentives in phase 4 of the experiment lead to an increase of 5 per cent of electric driving, a 10 per cent increase of electric outside e-zone, 15 per cent more charging events and about 20 per cent more charging steps, compared to phase 3 and 5, where there were no incentives.”

More information

The Erasmus Centre for Future Energy Business is a specialist research centre at RSM focusing on the energy market. Faculty members from ECFEB who set up the field experiment as part of Electric City Drive are Prof. Eric van HeckDr Jan van Dalen and Dr Marcel van Oosterhout. The Electric City Drive consortium expects further field experiments in other cities will use wider groups of drivers.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at