Driving Directions: Getting There Green

New Research on Electric Cars Suggests Eager Drivers

ibm's electric car survey


IBM's survey finds widely differing opinions among drivers and auto executives. (IBM graphic)

Will the fossil fuel era essentially be over by 2020, at which point electric cars will attain market supremacy? The crystal ball is pretty cloudy on that point, but IBM's Institute for Business Value (IBV) is the latest prognosticator to weigh in on the issue. And although IBM's report sees some bumps in the road, it also sees smoother sailing than many other analyses.

IBM actually conducted two studies: In addition to polling 1,716 auto owners, it also talked to 123 auto executives who should know what they're talking about (but may not when it comes to electrification).

think city

The Think City, captured at the new factory in Indiana, offers 100 miles of range. (Jim Motavalli photo)

According to the IBM survey, a fifth of American consumers (19 percent) are either "very likely" or "likely" to consider an electric-only car for their next purchase. And in a break from other data, 30 percent said they would consider buying an EV that gets only 100 miles per charge (the basic standard). And 30 percent said they'd actually be willing to live with less than 100 miles. In some earlier surveys, consumers said they'd expect their plug-in to offer 350 miles of range.

For instance, a ZPryme Research and Consulting survey from earlier this month went into the weeds with the "very" or "somewhat likely" to buy an EV crowd and found 33.7 percent saying that 400 miles "would be a sufficient range," and 33.3 percent "willing to settle for 300 miles." That's a fantasy for pure EVs, though plug-in hybrids and standard hybrids regularly pull in that kind of range.  

More than 32 percent also expected their car to recharge in four hours (at the optimistic end of the 240-volt home charger spectrum) and only 20 percent would want to wait eight hours. In an encouraging note for 480-volt fast charging (capable of nearly filling up an EV in 20 minutes), 87.4 percent said they'd pay a premium to charge their car faster. Nearly everyone, 93.2 percent, thinks that at-home charging (a universal option for EVs) is "very important."

Here's a good statistic: 40 percent said they'd pay up to 20 percent more for an electric car (27 percent of them would pay only 10 percent more). That compares to a University of Michigan survey reporting from 2009 that said 46 percent would consider a $2,500 premiun on a plug-in hybrid, with the number dropping for a $5,000 premium (30 percent) and even farther for a $10,000 additional charge (14 percent).

I talked to Kal Gyimesi, the auto leader at IBM's IBV, and he said his company's survey reveals that there is "a large, addressable market of consumers for EVs." By addressable he means they can and should be reached with more information. Although 55 percent said they had "a lot of knowledge" about electric cars, 45 percent said they had little or no information -- a nicely targeted public information effort wouldn't be wasted.

"When we got into buying criteria, there was some divergencies of answers between the auto executives (who put more emphasis on price) and consumers (who care most about charging and range)," Gyimesi said. That indicates that the Chevy Volt, at $41,000, could be a bigger hit than most people realize. Auto execs also don't think that consumers buy cars just because they're green, but actually 48 percent of drivers in the survey said exactly that -- a car's green attributes are an important buying consideration for them.

Gyimesi said the IBV survey is encouraging to this new product category, the electric car. Some 80 percent of respondents say they have access to a garage or driveway, which is very helpful in home charging.

What people say in surveys doesn't always get confirmed on the showroom floor. And as the cars head to the dealerships this year, we'll see what consumers actually do when they have to make hard choices. Will the green in their wallets trump the green in the environment? Stay tuned.

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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