Sure, Americans Want Electric Cars -- but Only If They're Magical

Last Updated Apr 29, 2011 8:41 AM EDT

There's a big collision ahead between consumer expectations and reality on electric cars. Americans expect a lot more than the vehicles can possibly deliver on range, charge time and price, and optimistic surveys that lead with squishy numbers aren't going to disguise that.

Deloitte, for instance, yesterday pitched me a new survey that purported to show that "78 percent of consumers in the U.S. would consider purchasing an electric vehicle when fuel prices reach $5 a gallon." Sounds terrific! Unfortunately, people "consider" lots of things they don't end up doing, and when you dig beyond that headline, you walk away with a much more pessimistic view of the likely EV take-up rate.

Craig Giffi, U.S. automotive practice leader for Deloitte, told me, "I'm the automotive industry guy, not the PR guy. What the headline didn't say is that the cars are less than what people are expecting." The Deloitte survey also says that a huge 93 percent of Chinese consumers (and 69 percent in Europe) would consider buying an EV, but Giffi said those consumers will run into the same roadblocks as their American counterparts.

Sure, the interest is there
You bet, consumers are interested in EVs, and $5 a gallon gas is a big motivator. That interest may even get them into showrooms to check the cars out. But in many cases they're going to be shocked -- though not literally -- by what they find. And the number likely to buy or lease the cars is much lower than Deloitte's headline would suggest.

These "first movers" who will actually put their money down, the company's data says, are more like 12 percent of the auto-buying public. That definitely means EVs are currently a niche, not a mass market. More than half of consumers surveyed said they would refuse to pay any price premium for an EV. If that premium is more than $3,000, then only eight percent are willing.

Interest isn't intent
There's been a long history of overly optimistic polling on this issue, and it's often brought down to reality by the fine print. For instance:
  • A ZPryme Research and Consulting poll early this year found 37.2 percent of consumers either "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to buy an EV. But in that same survey, 33.7 percent of those "likely" people said they'd be happy with a range of 400 miles, and another 33.3 percent said they'd settle for 300 miles. EVs average 100 miles of range, so that can't end happily.
  • A Pike Research poll last year said that an impressive 83 percent of Americans would consider buying a plug-in hybrid, but that's only if the new car adds no more than 10 percent to the cost of their current car. The actual premiums are likely to be double that. And it said that an equally assuring 79 percent would invest in a home-based fast-charger. But then there was this kicker: "Willingness to pay is out of line with industry expectations."
  • The Electrification Coalition, which lobbies for federal EV funding and counts Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn as a member, says that three-quarters of all miles traveled in the U.S. by 2040 will be "electric miles." But press the group on that and they'll offer the caveat that all bets are off if the federal subsidies it wants for consumers and others don't materialize.
In an interview, Giffi was quite realistic about the EV's prospects on the American market:
Americans are expecting 300 miles of range, and 55 percent of those who are willing to consider an EV want it to charge in two hours or less. Right now, the technology can't deliver against the expectation set they have. There's not enough currently on the table to get them to switch to electric cars.
That's sobering, and unlike all those wonderful headlines, it has the virtue of cutting through ungrounded optimism. The bottom line is that consumers are really confused about EVs.

Related: Photo: Jim Motavalli
  • jim motavalli

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