By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN Business
The percentage of Americans who say they would “definitely buy” an electric vehicle has more than tripled over the past two years, according to a new survey. That’s a little less impressive than it seems at first glance: It went from just 4% of Americans in 2020 to 14% in the latest Consumer Reports survey of attitudes towards electric vehicles. But the survey did provide a hint as to how the figure could keep growing. One of the biggest predictors of whether someone said they would at least consider getting an electric car was, simply, whether they’d had any experience with one in real life.
Overall, 71% of respondents indicated at least some degree of interest in getting an electric vehicle, ranging from those who said they definitely would to 35% who said they just “might” consider getting one. Twenty-eight percent said they definitely would not purchase an electric car.
Almost half of those who said they would “definitely” buy or lease an electric vehicle had a friend, relative or co-worker who owned one. Of those who said they definitely would not, that figure was only 13%.
Similarly, 71% of the people who said they would “definitely” buy an EV had seen one in their neighborhood, while only 27% of those who wouldn’t consider one had. Overall, about 44% of respondents said they have seen an EV in their neighborhood.
Also, far more of those who said they would buy an electric vehicle had been a passenger in one while very few of those of those who would not consider an EV had ever ridden in one. Overall, though, the great majority of Americans — 83% according to the survey — have still never ridden in, let alone driven, an electric vehicle.
Actual experience is particularly important for costly items like cars, said Deidre Popovich, an assistant professor of marketing at Texas Tech University.
“Product experiences provide us with sensory information which we can use to evaluate our enjoyment,” she said in an email. “This is particularly important with high-value purchases such as a house or a car because we want to make sure we will be happy with our decision.”
Rental fleets considered key
Automakers like General Motors, Polestar and Tesla have been selling electric cars to rental fleets in large part so that rental customers can experience them. Last year, Hertz agreed to purchase 100,000 Teslas. When Polestar announced earlier this year that Hertz had agreed to purchase up 65,000 Polestar 2 cars, Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said in the announcement that the “partnership with a global pioneer like Hertz will bring the amazing experience of driving an electric car to a wider audience.”
GM also puts its Chevrolet Bolt EV and Bolt EUV models into rental fleets and plans to do so with future models, as well, said GM spokesperson Kelly Cusinato.
“We expect Blazer EV, Equinox EVs, Silverado EV, to be of interest to rental companies and we agree that once customers get exposure to EVs, they are more likely to consider them,” she said.
GM also puts on ride-and-drive events during which customers can get time inside an electric vehicle, she said.
There will always be some customers who are especially resistant, though, said Popovich. Some will tend to look for the negative in any new or innovative product or experience.
“Early adopters ask questions to support their natural desire to try something new,” she said. “Late adopters, on the other hand, tend to ask questions to gather evidence about why they should not try something new.”
Still, she said, as more electric vehicles make their way onto roads and into driveways, giving more people experience with them, there should be a corresponding increase in interest and demand. It’s similar to what has happened with smartphones, she said, which were embraced by technology aficionados first but eventually became mainstream products that people are now expected to have.
Still a ways to go
For now, electric car sales in the US are increasing rapidly but they are still vastly outnumbered by gasoline-powered models. In the last quarter of 2021, electric vehicles accounted for just 3.4% of passenger vehicles sold in the United States, according to the US government’s Energy Information Administration.
Rising gas prices may also have been a factor in the increasing interest in EVs, said Quinta Warren, associate director of sustainability policy for Consumer Reports. Electric cars cost far less to power than gasoline cars and rising gas prices widen the difference.
The last time the survey was conducted, in 2020, gas cost $2.50 a gallon on average, according to the EIA. The newer survey was conducted with 8,000 respondents between late January and late February, 2022, when gas prices were rising but were still around $3.60 a gallon on average, according to EIA. Today, gasoline costs about $5.00 a gallon on average for all grades.
“If we put the survey out today, I’m sure even more people would be inclined to choose an electric vehicle,” Warren said.
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