What U.S. Drivers Want from EVs: More Range, Less Cost

Automakers will be flaunting their latest electric concepts and production vehicles at the Detroit Auto Show this week, but how many consumers are really ready to trade in the gas pump for a plug? And what will it take for more drivers to take the plunge?

A new study out from IBM’s (s IBM) Institute for Business Value today offers some insights into consumer attitudes toward EVs, including disparities between consumers and auto industry executives on the relative importance of things like government incentives and oil prices, as well as clues into about how much consumers are willing to pay for charging equipment.

After surveying 1,716 U.S. drivers and interviewing 123 auto executives, IBM found that only about 19 percent of American drivers are likely to consider buying an all-electric car when shopping for a new vehicle. More drivers — about 30 percent of those surveyed — said they would consider switching to an all electric vehicle, however, if it could travel in the range of 100 miles or less per charge, compared to 50-100 miles per charge for many of today’s models.

Drivers are also not very keen on spending more for an electric car at this point, according to IBM’s survey, which found 51 percent of respondents unwilling to pay more money for an EV over a gas, diesel or hybrid model.

Auto executives surveyed by IBM ranked government incentives or regulations and higher oil prices as some of the most important ways to motivate consumers to switch to an all-electric vehicle. According to IBM’s summary of its findings, auto execs “place far greater weight than consumers on government incentives/regulations (73 percent to 41 percent) and significantly higher oil prices (76 percent to 51 percent).

Auto executives also undervalued the capacity for a green image and sustainability concerns to motivate drivers to go electric. Nearly half (48 percent) of drivers said a green image or sustainability concerns would motivate them to switch to an electric vehicle. Auto executives asked to rate the importance that consumers place on this factor, however, gave it only 33 percent.

The cost of installing charging equipment at home is a potential speed bump on the road to widespread adoption of electric vehicles. IBM notes that industry estimates peg the average cost of retrofitting a 220V outlet accessible to vehicles at $1,000-$2,000. Yet only 8 percent of drivers responding to IBM’s survey said they would even consider spending $1,000-$1,999 on a retrofit for home vehicle charging.

Nearly a third (31 percent) of respondents said they are not willing to invest in upgrading residential electrical systems for EV charging, and another third (32 percent) said they would spend only up to $500 on this project. A smaller portion (22 percent) said they would spend $500-$999 for electrical upgrades.

As Enid Joffe, president and founder of infrastructure installer Clean Fuel Connection has commented, putting in a plug may not be rocket science, but there’s a very complicated process for a simple job because of the amount of coordination that’s required. Down the road, General Motors’ Britta Gross (who heads up infrastructure commercialization for the automaker) has suggested, outfitting a home for electric vehicle charging should be more like cable or Internet installations: cheap, quick and low maintenance.

It’s important to note that a majority of IBM’s sample reported access to a private parking spot at home, with a full 83 percent saying they park their primary vehicle in the garage or driveway of their private residence — rather than in a parking lot, on the street or in a shared garage, which many urban car owners rely upon. (In total, the company surveyed 802 urban drivers, 469 suburban drivers and 445 rural drivers.)

But, in fact, IBM Vice President for Energy & Utilities Allan Schurr commented at a 2009 conference that as many as 80 percent of vehicles are not parked in a garage owned by the same person who owns the car. They could be parked in rented spots (where a landlord would likely need convincing to install charging equipment), on the street or in driveways.

Image courtesy of Juice Technologies

For more research on electric cars check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):