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Survey: Consumer wariness to limit EV sales

Mainstream consumers are less concerned about mile range than they are with plug-in vehicle price and technology, a Pike Research survey shows.

An electric mini and a plug-in Prius charge up.
An electric mini and a plug-in hybrid charge up. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Electric vehicles will figure prominently at the upcoming LA Auto Show, but yet another survey is highlighting that consumer apprehension about the new technology is one of the biggest challenges to plug-in vehicles.

Pike Research today released a survey of 1,042 U.S. consumers that found interest in highway-capable gas-electric hybrids and battery electric cars, with 44 percent of respondents saying they would be interested in a plug-in with a range of 40 miles to 100 miles and a fuel equivalent of 75 cents per gallon.

A battery range of 40 miles suited 83 percent of drivers, with the average being 26.6 miles per day. The Chevy Volt, which is now shipping to early customers, has an electric range of 25 to 50 miles with a gas tank to run a generator to charge the batteries for longer drivers. The Nissan Leaf, shipping later this year, has a range of about 100 miles.

But current pricing for plug-in vehicles is higher than what most consumers are willing to pay, even if it's cheaper per mile to drive, according to Pike Research. It estimates the optimal premium is in the range of 18.75 percent, which would be $23,750 compared to a $20,000 car. The Volt is priced at $41,000 and the Leaf costs just under $33,000.

Also, consumers were split on which sort of plug-in vehicle they would choose. By 2012, there will be a range of plug-in options, ranging from all-electric vehicles to sedans such as the plug-in Prius, which improves overall mileage with a larger battery that gives an electric range of 13 miles.

"The fact is that a 'wait-and-see' approach about the technology itself was a greater issue for consumers in our survey (than range). It could easily take several years for mainstream car shoppers to get comfortable with the idea of electric vehicles," Pike analyst John Gartner said in a statement.

Still, Pike projects rapid growth in the nascent plug-in segment, which it says will more than double in size from 2010 to 2015.

Last month, J.D. Powers released its own survey and analysis of hybrid and electric vehicles sales, which it said will grow from 2.2 percent of sales now to 7.3 percent in 2020. It argued that only a spike in gas prices, a breakthrough in batteries, or concerted government policies would push sales far beyond that percentage.

Many automaker executives, too, are cautious about hyping electric vehicles or expecting a rapid shift to electrification. The priority for car companies now is to ensure that early drivers have a good experience and to bring costs down by scaling up production.