ANN ARBOR, MI – Prepare for a powertrain technology onslaught, experts say, a regulatory fueled offensive seen as a boon to suppliers with the right parts and components and a challenge for automakers because many U.S. consumers are uneducated about the benefits of paying extra for higher fuel economy.

“People know about one-third of what these technologies can do,” says Bryan Krulikowski, vice president-Transportation and Technology at Morpace Market Research and Consulting.

Krulikowksi, whose group publishes an annual survey of consumer interest in powertrains, says a lack a buyer familiarity with fuel-saving technologies will be a major hurdle for automakers in the coming years. Fuel-economy regulations will continue to tighten and compel automakers to add expensive powertrain technologies to their cars and trucks, but buyers do not see the benefit, especially when gasoline prices remain a relatively cheap $3 per gallon.

“Conventional gasoline (engines) are what people are familiar with and it impacts how they feel about (advanced) technologies,” he tells a conference on 21st-century powertrain technologies at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

​Krulikowski points to two areas where automakers fall down trying to educate consumers about technologies such as diesel, hybrid and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Marketing messages tend to be too focused, he offers, and dealership salespeople often lack knowledge and are typically pushed to sell products off the lot.

The knowledge gap already could be affecting sales of advanced-technology vehicles, which last year accounted for 3.5% of the nearly 17 million cars and trucks sold in the U.S., according to WardsAuto data.

“Part of the issue is the technologies are really focused, such as in zero-emissions vehicles states, but the other problem is price. How can you sell it?” he asks, citing the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle from General Motors as one example of a technology difficult for consumers to get their arms around and, as a $35,000 compact car, a stretch for many pocketbooks.

GM sold 18,805 Volts last year after expecting upwards of 60,000 units annually when the car launched in 2010. Company executives have said explaining the technology to buyers has been more difficult than anticipated.

Tesla bucks the trend, Krulikowski says. The electric-vehicle maker markets its technology well, he claims, evidenced by buyers cross-shopping its six-figure EVs with mainstream vehicles with similar technologies. It helps, he admits, that Tesla wraps its technology in a highly attractive package.

For mainstream automakers, the battle to educate buyers will be on the dealership floor. “That’s going to be the driver of these technologies,” Krulikowski tells WardsAuto.

But dealership employees already are pulled in many different directions and asked to perform a wide variety of selling tasks, adds Bruce Belzowski, managing director-Automotive Futures at UMTRI. Plus, sales people are pressured to sell what’s in inventory and usually that does not include an alternative-propulsion vehicle.

“It’s a real struggle if your dealer body is not educated,” Belzowski says.