Driving Directions: Getting There Green

Americans' Expectations for Electric Cars Are on Collision Course with Reality

With the Nissan Leaf, Coda sedan, Chevy Volt and other new electric car models rolling out, anticipation is high.

I'm worried. Americans are kind of confused about EVs. There's a bit of a collision course in the offing between what people think about them and the on-the-ground reality. That's borne out in two recent polls.

American car owners told Consumer Reports that they're really concerned about cutting our dependence on fossil fuel. They don't like their gas dollars funding terrorists, which is something everyone agrees on, including the Tea Party. They're willing to do their part by purchasing a green car, too, but when they talk about their expectations it goes totally off the rails--they want far more than the market can deliver right now.

mitsubishi i-miev

The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is a zero emission plug-in car, but it's going to cost more than a Honda Fit, not less. (Jim Motavalli photo)

According to the poll, almost 80 percent of respondents either "strongly" or "somewhat" support reducing national fuel consumption, and more than 70 percent want to increase government funding for it, too. But that's the government's money--they definitely don't want to spend their own.

Almost two thirds (63 percent) said they expect their next car to have better fuel economy than their car now. But a majority, 59 percent, cite a lower purchase price as a reason to buy a greener, more fuel-efficient car. That would be fine if we were talking about traditional compact cars--the Toyota Yaris and the Honda Civic, for example. But the EVs rolling out now and in 2011 offer zero emissions and the equivalent of more than 100 miles a gallon--but they cost more. The Nissan Leaf costs $32,790, which would buy you a nice Lexus, or at least a used one.

According to Eric Evarts, associate CR auto editor, "No doubt consumers are responding correctly to the current reality - expressing an interest in Honda Fits and Chevy Cruzes, perhaps. But the reality of really high-fuel efficiency cars coming down the pike is that they're going to cost more than people expect."

I was fascinated by a Kelley Blue Book poll that found Americans expecting their new EV to cost the same as their current car, and go 340 miles on a charge, too. They must have missed everything written about EVs for the past three years. No can do 340 miles on a charge, so that can lead to big disappointment on the showroom floor.

Back to the CR survey, which found 94 percent of respondents saying a high purchase price would probably keep them from buying a green car. And they don't like laws that level the playing field for EVs but impact their pocketbooks, such as a gas guzzler tax (40 percent like it) or gas taxes (a miserable 14 percent approval).

Americans report that their average car gets 24 mpg, so there's a lot of progress to be made. They also think Toyota is the greenest carmaker. It gets 29 percent of the votes, more than double that of the tied-for-second Ford and Honda.

Rude awakening ahead, especially on prices and range. And speaking of electric cars, I was in New York yesterday driving a bunch of them, from the Tesla Roadster to the Coda sedan and the Nissan Leaf. Those cars and more will soon be in Connect by Hertz car-sharing fleets in New York, Washington and San Francisco. Here's what they looked like on the ground:

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Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli is a senior writer at E/The Environmental Magazine, a regular contributor to the New York Times and author most recently of Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery.
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Forward Drive: The race to build "clean" cars of the future.
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