Consumers Confused About EVs, and It's Affecting Their Purchase Decisions

Last Updated Oct 22, 2010 12:49 PM EDT

How much do Americans know about the coming electric cars? Way less than they think they do, according to a recent survey by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), as presented at the GridWeek conference on EVs and smart charging held in Washington, D.C. this week.

That follows my own informal conclusions: People have fairly strong convictions about EVs, but a lot of their conclusions are based on misinformation (such as the long-held notion that hybrid cars need to be plugged in).

As Bernie Neenan, a technical executive at EPRI, said in DC:

People say they've heard of EVs, but if you dig deeper they tend to mix up their definitions. They're answering a different question than the one that was asked. We need an educational campaign.
The EPRI study revealed that 38 percent of respondents think the maximum range of a battery EV is 50 miles, when it's actually double that. Half or more think that EVs "cost more" (in many cases they won't with subsidies), and 35 percent think they are "less reliable." Twenty percent think they are "not as safe." Misperceptions like these are definitely going to color your attitude toward EVs. I agree that there's a definition problem here, and it's not helped by the industry's tendency to throw around confusing and inconsistent abbreviations, like BEV for battery electric vehicle, PHEV for plug-in hybrid and FCEV for fuel-cell electric.

People are confused about pricing, the EPRI study says, and that's not surprising, either. The car companies often quote prices inclusive of the $7,500 federal tax credit. The Leaf spokeswoman did it at the Gridweek conference. And sometimes they also add in California's $5,000 rebate. That makes sense when you're trying to make these expensive cars look cheaper than they actually are, but it means that online sources frequently quote two very different prices for the same vehicle.

Of people queried by EPRI, only four percent say they expect the new car they're likely to buy within two to three years will be a battery electric. Only seven percent say it will be a plug-in hybrid, and 11 percent for the standard hybrid car. Most, 78 percent, are sticking with internal combustion. No surprise, if they're befuddled by the electrified offerings.

Another possible collision ahead: Less than five percent of respondents, in EPRI's study, say they're willing to pay more than $500 for a garage-based charger. That's a bit of a problem, because they cost an average of $2,000. Of course, there are subsidies available -- some lucky Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Volt and Smart electric drive customers will be able to tap into federal subsidies that make chargers free to them, but that's only in EV rollout states.

Anyone is eligible for a federal tax credit that covers 50 percent of a charger installation up to $2,000, but to add another layer of confusion that credit expires December 31, and Congress may not get around to extending it in the lame duck session next month.

Oliver Hazimeh, director of the electric mobility practice at the PRTM global consulting firm, agrees that there's a considerable knowledge gap. "Surveys show a lot of interest here and in Europe. Half of the people queried say they would consider buying an EV, but when you ask them to be specific about what they know, it turns out they don't know very much--there's a huge cliff."

Consumer Reports will clarify consumer interest in an upcoming survey, also previewed at the Gridweek conference. According to Eric Evarts, associate auto editor, a poll of 1,700 American car owners showed that 39 percent would consider buying a battery electric or hybrid car, which is twice the number that would consider buying a diesel (which are much more popular in Europe).

The CU survey also showed that range anxiety is a real concern for consumers, Evarts said. He pointed out that one of the magazine's editors stopped driving his Mini E battery car in January and February because using the heater halved the range. It's definitely a real issue, but it's even more of one if you think, as many people do, that the cars have only 50 miles of range to begin with.

It doesn't help that there's no official way to translate battery EV and plug-in hybrid performance into the standard that Americans are most familiar with: miles per gallon, or mpg. GM claimed 230 mpg for the Volt, but then backed away from that. The EPA is currently debating what to do about battery car performance on the window sticker, which is currently undergoing a much-needed revision.

As CU reported, "The EPA is trying to come up with a single meaningful unit of measure that consumers can easily understand. But it hasn't made up its mind yet which is best. So far, the only unit people are familiar with is miles per gallon." The Progressive Insurance Auto X Prize used a calculation called "MPGe," or miles per gallon equivalent, but that's easier to translate for hydrogen or natural gas cars, which actually carry fuel, than it is for those powered by batteries. Kilowatt-hours per mile? That one will take a while for the public to wrap itself around. Dollars per mile might work, but for EVs it's really dependent on the price of electricity.

All this translates into a lot of variables for beleaguered consumers to consider. It's not surprising that they're confused. I'm confused, too.

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Graphic: EPRI