There’s little doubt that Americans are more familiar than ever in electric vehicles. And in this case, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt—it fosters greater interest in consumer adoption. The Consumer Federation of America surveyed 1,007 American adults in late August. Thirty-six percent said they have an interest in buying an electric car, compared to 31 percent a year ago.
That uptick in interest matches sales trends. Based on the first eight months of 2016, this year is on track for about 140,000 sales of plug-in electric vehicles—more than ever before. The number of models available for sale has grown from just three in 2011; to 16 in 2013; and 32 by 2017. In that sense, the EV market is a self-fulfilling prophecy—the more consumers encounter electric cars in dealerships, in advertising and on the street, the more appealing the technology becomes.
What do we know about changes in EV consumer sentiment since 2010 when the technology was a nearly completely unknown? Rewind to 2009 when Consumer Reports conducted a survey to discover that only 25 percent of consumers said they were even willing to look at an EV as their next vehicle. That reluctance might be explained by a 2011 survey by Pike Research (now Navigant Research) indicating that 40 percent of respondents believed that plug-ins were likely to strand their owners on the side of the road when the battery was depleted—and about one-third thought that plug-in vehicle batteries were dangerous.
This year’s survey by the Consumer Federation shows how far we’ve come in five years, providing more evidence about the importance of familiarity. In the August 2016 survey, 55 percent of respondents who consider themselves knowledgeable about electric cars are interested in buying one. Meanwhile, only 22 percent of consumer who say they have no knowledge of electric cars are interested.
Those results have some correlation with a similar high level of interest—50 percent—of adults age 18 to 34, who are interesting in buying an electric car. “As the younger buyers enter the market, more attractive EVs are made available, and consumers learn more about these vehicles, interest in purchasing them is likely to grow significantly,” said Jack Gillis, director of public affairs at the Consumer Federation of America.
The self-fulfilling aspect of the EV market is most evident in California, where there are the greatest number of electric cars on the street and the highest level of interest in EV purchase consideration. In an April survey of 1,213 licensed drivers conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Consumer Union, 55 percent of California drivers said they are liked to purchase or lease an EV as their next car. That compared to just 35 percent in Northeastern states, where you are less likely to see an electric car on the street everyday.
Greater consideration among younger and more informed buyers—exactly at the time that more models are available with longer range and lower prices—create a virtuous cycle. These surveys are helpful in confirming these realities. On the other hand, what’s not helpful is when researchers ask questions about idealized hypothetical EVs, which are unlikely to emerge on the market anytime soon. In the Consumer Federation of America study, participants were asked if they would be buy an EV that costs the same as a gas-powered car, had lower operating costs, 200 miles of range and could charge in less than an hour. Fifty-seven percent said yes, but that combination of attributes—for example, one-hour charging of a 200-mile EV that sells without a premium—is unlikely to appear on the market anytime soon and is therefore misleading.
Thanks goodness we no longer have to dangle future dreams about hypothetical EVs in front of potential electric drivers. Desirable, affordable, practical and stylish electric cars are here now—and ready to be purchased today.