On Electric Cars, Watch What People Do, Not What They Say

Last Updated Apr 29, 2010 12:57 PM EDT

What do people think of electric cars? It's hard to say, because what they are saying (and doing) is all over the map.

Consumer Reports recently asked 1,752 motorists what they thought about plug-in vehicles; 26 percent said they'd consider one the next time they're in the market for a new car. Seven percent said they'd be "very likely" to consider one. But 72 percent said they definitely would not buy an electric car.

Another survey, by Ernst & Young, of 1,000 American drivers, found that only 10 percent would consider buying either a plug-in EV or a hybrid electric car. Still, even that percentage represents 20 million drivers, more than enough to sell out all the EVs likely to be sold in the next few years.

Drilling deeper into the data, men told Consumer Reports that they want their EVs to have a median range of 106 miles, which means the Nissan Leaf (100 miles between charges), which is supposed to go on sale later this year, is the closest to meeting their needs. Women are satisfied with less range, and 45 percent of all respondents said they would settle for less than 75 miles. A solid 29 percent are holding out for 200 miles a day, which means they probably should consider the gas-electric Chevy Volt (with 40 miles of all-electric range, and another 300 with help from the gas engine).

At least in part because of "range anxiety" -- the worry that your car will run out of electricity and leave you stranded -- 63 percent said they'd be more likely to buy an EV if their business has a charging station.

Price is an issue, too. The CR survey found that people are willing to pay an average of $2,068 extra for an electric car. Twenty percent would pay $5,000 more; and 20 percent would pay no premium at all.

That's where the incentives come in, because there are major advantages to ordering EVs in certain states. In California, you can put together a $7,500 federal tax credit with a $5,000 state cash rebate and buy a Leaf for as little as $20,000 (instead of the $32,000 manufacturer's suggested retail price). That sweet deal was enough to get southern California resident John O'Dell (senior editor of Edmunds.com's Green Car Advisor) to make a Leaf reservation earlier this month. O'Dell calls the car "an incredible bargain," and says without the tax credits "it would have been a real stretch." Most of the early Leaf reservations are in states with good incentives, especially California.

With only the $109,000 Tesla Roadster in the market at the moment, judging people's intentions by their actions is difficult. But considering what is happening with the Nissan Leaf. About 115,000 people registered their interest with a few clicks. But only 6,635 Americans, and another 3,700 Japanese, actually paid a refundable $99 and converted their registrations to reservations. Late this week, Nissan said there are now 8,000 Leaf reservations.

The Leaf is definitely ahead of other EVs -- 3,100 people had reserved the delayed Aptera 2E as of March, and 2,000 for the Tesla Model S as of last December.

Both Boston Consulting Group and Deutsche Bank see electric battery cars as from one to five percent of North American auto sales by 2020, depending on oil prices and the level of government subsidies. That translates into 200,000 to a million battery cars.

Photo: Ford