The year 2012 will be an important test of the commercial viability of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). Two automakers, Chevrolet and Nissan, ended 2010 with the launch of their first highway-capable PEVs for the mass market. Many other auto manufacturers are working to electrify their lineups with new models. For example, Toyota plans to launch the PEV Prius in January 2012 and other manufacturers have plans to launch plug-in electric models in the near future.

However, as public awareness of electric vehicles continues to build with the increase in model launch activity, a new survey from Pike Research finds that consumer interest in purchasing PEVs has gradually declined over the past two years. In late 2011, the cleantech market intelligence firm conducted the third annual edition of its Electric Vehicle Consumer Survey using a nationally representative and demographically balanced sample of 1,051 adults in the United States. In the first edition, conducted in 2009, 48% of respondents stated that they would be “extremely” or “very” interested in purchasing a PEV. In 2010 that number declined moderately to 44% and in 2011 it fell further to 40%.

“Price is the most significant barrier to consumer interest in electric vehicles,” says research director John Gartner. “About two-thirds of our survey respondents who stated they would not be interested in purchasing a PEV said that they felt such a vehicle would be too expensive. Others said that they would want to wait a few years until the technology is more proven, and almost half said that a PEV would not have sufficient driving range for their needs. These are all key issues, both real and perceived, that automakers will need to address if PEVs are to move successfully out of the early adopter phase.”

Other key findings of the survey were as follows:

  • Survey respondents stated that they would be most likely to choose Toyota (51%) and Ford (46%) when considering a PEV purchase, even though these two automakers did not have PEVs on the market at the time of the survey. Honda ranked third with 44%, followed by Chevrolet with 42% and Nissan with 35%.
  • Consumers are willing to pay a premium for PEVs, just not as much of a premium as automakers must charge during the next few years due to the cost of batteries. Pike Research’s price sensitivity analysis indicates that for a traditional gasoline vehicle that would ordinarily cost $20,000, the optimal price point of a comparable PEV would be $23,750 – a premium of 18.75%.
  • Interest in residential fast-charging equipment is high, with 80% of consumers interested in a PEV stating that they would also be interested in such a unit in their home. However, pricing is once again an issue – while Pike Research’s analysis suggests that the first generation of residential fast-charging equipment will cost between $500 and $800, only 28% of survey respondents stated that they would be willing to pay $500 or more.
  • Survey respondents expressed strong interest in smartphone applications that would provide useful information on the status of their PEV. The most popular feature was identifying the location of the nearest charging station (84%), followed by battery state of charge information (82%), electricity pricing data (76%), and the ability to schedule stop/start times for PEV charging (68%).