Mainstream car shoppers are simultaneously ignorant and apathetic about plug-in electric vehicles. That's the essential finding of a new study from the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. The study, which is based on a survey of 2,300 adult drivers in 21 large U.S. cities in fall 2011, is a snapshot of driver sentiment 18 months ago.
Since that time, EV marketing efforts for such cars as the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt have only modestly increased awareness, according to researchers.
"Based on sales data of electric vehicles, and subsequent surveys, we would be very surprised if the result would be much different today than in August 2011," said John Graham, who designed the study.
Graham is the dean of the university's School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
The results of the study raise this question: If respondents know so little about electric cars, what are they basing their answers on -- except preconceived notions about EVs not necessarily based on facts?
"We found substantial factual misunderstandings of electric cars in our sample of 2,000," Graham said. "In some cases, the misunderstandings would cause one to be more pessimistic about the vehicle than they should be. And in other cases, it would cause people to be more optimistic than they should be."
He said people underestimate the price premium carried by plug-in electric vehicles. The respondents know that EVs cost more, but not a few thousands of dollars more, as can be the case. Graham says he believes that car buyers experience sticker shock at the dealership and walk away.
At the same time, mainstream car buyers don't understand that the higher upfront cost could be recouped, at least in part, by cost saving on fuel.
"They don't realize how cheap the electricity is," Graham said. "And it is very cheap, like 70 to 80 percent less expensive on a per-mile basis than gasoline on average."
Consumer awareness of other EV advantages -- like quicker acceleration, a smoother and quieter ride and better handling -- were not evaluated in the Indiana University study.
Only about 4 percent of respondents indicated a serious consideration of buying a plug-in electric vehicle. Of those who expressed a relatively high interest in a plug-in car, only 22 percent were interested in a pure electric car, while 78 percent expressed interest in a plug-in hybrid. A plug-in hybrid, like the Chevy Volt, uses a gas engine to extend range by hundreds of miles. Limited range was cited as one of the primary disadvantages of a plug-in electric car, even though plug-in hybrids are no more limited in range than gas-powered cars.
The distance traveled per day reported by respondents was 28.35 miles (as a mean), a range that can easily be covered in a single charge by electric cars.
"The data is consistent with the view in the industry that a lot of new-car buyers purchase vehicles for the occasional imperative -- the weekend trip, the vacation," Graham said. "They buy for the peak demand, not for the ordinary use of the vehicle."
Despite the misgivings expressed by respondents, drivers in some cities were more amenable to plug-in electric vehicles than others. San Francisco, Chicago and Boston ranked highest out of the 21 cities. Interest was greatest among highly educated, conservation-minded people, especially those who already own a conventional hybrid.
Graham says he believes that familiarity and more exposure to the cars would increase acceptance.
"That definitely would be the case," he said. "But it's going to be a decade before we figure out if plug-in vehicles can become the norm, rather than an interesting curiosity of a niche buyer."
The findings were published online by the journal Transportation Research. The study was written by Graham, Sanya Carley, Rachel Krause and Bradley Lane.