Study: Electric cars, hybrids too expensive for most

Consumers won't buy alternative power trains unless initial costs come down and misinformation about technology is corrected, J.D. Power report warns.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read
U.S. Department of Energy

Despite rising prices at the pump, many consumers are still reluctant to purchase vehicles with alternative power trains because of cost and misunderstandings about the new technologies available.

That's according to the J.D. Power and Associates "2011 U.S. Green Automotive Study," whose primary findings were released today.

The J.D. Power and Associates study was conducted in February and included interviews with over 4,000 U.S. consumers planning to buy a new vehicle within one to five years. It estimates that alternative vehicles will make up less than 10 percent of the market by 2016 despite the plethora of models expected to become available in the coming years.

The study found that attitudes toward the adoption of alternative power train vehicles, which includes plug-in electric, plug-in hybrid, hybrid, and clean diesel engines, were mainly dependent on affordability. Over 75 percent of those consumers surveyed said the main reason they would consider an alternative vehicle car is to save on fuel. But consumers were not willing to pay a premium to be green unless it resulted in a cost benefit to them personally in the form of significant fuel savings, according to the report.

"While consumers often cite saving money on fuel as the primary benefit of owning an alternative power train vehicle, the reality for many is that the initial cost of these vehicles is too high, even as fuel prices in the United States approach record levels," said the report.

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That result was not so unusual. However, the J.D. Power and Associates study also found that many consumers were misinformed about technology, leading them to unwarranted negative perceptions of the new types of cars. The most amusing example of this to tech-savvy readers may be the results concerning cars with diesel engines.

Many of the consumers interviewed said that diesel cars spew "dirty" emissions and are harmful to the environment. These people seemed unaware of the significant changes made in diesel technology, or its fuel efficiency, over the last 20 years, according to the report.

"Furthermore, negative perceptions of older diesel-powered vehicles continue to affect perceptions of clean diesel vehicles, as concerns about emissions and exhaust odor are mentioned frequently," said the report.

Plug-in electric vehicles were the least considered vehicle among the consumers surveyed. The two most popular reasons cited for this were concerns over the limited driving range and a lack of available public charging stations.

This last piece of information is significant in view of a recent study from Accenture that found a lack of use of pubic charging stations in electric-vehicle pilot programs. It's unclear whether that lack of use is simply due to governments getting infrastructure in place ahead of demand, or other factors. But the Accenture report warned that the lack of use could lead to a vicious cycle in which more charging stations are not installed, and consumers deterred from buying electric vehicles because of it.

J.D. Power and Associates predicts that the U.S. market will go from 31 hybrid and electric-vehicle models available in 2009 to 159 models available by the end of 2016.

With that fact in mind, the report warned, the U.S. government and companies in the U.S. market will need to make a concerted effort to bring down pricing and better educate the public on the technology if it expects these new alternative power train models to be purchased or leased.

The Department of Energy is already making an effort to improve public education about alternative-fuel stations. It offers a public Alternative Fueling Station Locator tool on its Web site, and announced earlier this month it is collaborating with Google to construct a definitive map of available electric-vehicle charging stations.