When it comes to electric cars, most people are worried about their limited range and potential repair costs. Instead, they should be concerned about where to plug the cars in. That's the conclusion of a new study by Consumers Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists, which surveyed 914 adults who own cars in a nationally representative telephone sample.
Of those drivers, 42 percent fit within all the parameters necessary to use a plug-in hybrid vehicle for their transportation needs with few, if any, changes in behavior. Among that group, 60 percent met the criteria to make a pure battery-electric car practical for them.
Typical daily drive
We asked drivers how far they drive in a typical day; how much that amount varies, how often they travel more than 60 miles on a weekend or vacation trip; how many passengers they typically need to carry; and whether they need towing or hauling capacity. We also asked what type of house they live in (single family, duplex, condo, apartment, etc.); where they park (off-street, in a garage, on-street, etc.); and whether they have access to any type of electrical outlet either at home or at work, or both.
We found that even though most drivers don't need to travel farther than a pure electric car can go on a charge, many can't take full advantage of a plug-in hybrid car (which uses a gas engine as a backup generator once the charge runs out) because they have no place to routinely plug it in.
Only 52 percent of respondents said they had access to at least an electrical outlet where they park at home. (Of those, 14 percent of respondents reported currently having access to an electric car charger either at home, school, work, or other weekday destination.) A basic household 110-volt outlet is sufficient to charge most plug-in hybrid cars overnight, giving plug-in hybrid ownership a lower hurdle than the requirements to own a pure electric vehicle. Just 4 percent have access to an electric-car charger at work, but not at home.
Most Americans don't drive farther than a pure electric car can go on a charge. More than half the drivers we surveyed (55 percent) said they drive less than 30 miles a day during the week, and more than three-quarters (76 percent) said they drive less than 60 miles a day.
Even when we added in extra mileage for weekday commutes to address occasional errands—such as running to the store or picking up kids at school—60 percent of respondents had plenty of buffer given the range of today's typical electric vehicle. When Consumer Reports tested the Nissan Leaf, we got an average of 75 miles on a charge, and at least 60 miles during cold weather—when EV's are least efficient.
But since longer trips could be a problem for drivers of pure-electric cars, we asked respondents how many cars they have in their household. In total, 64 percent of households reported owning more than one car, which gives them an alternative for making such long trips and makes them better suited to owning an electric car. We also assumed that those who make fewer than six long weekend trips per year could economically rent a car when needed. Of course, there were some (19 percent) of drivers without a second car that routinely took long trips, making them less-than-ideal candidates.
Another 19 percent of drivers needed hauling or towing capacity in their daily vehicle, so none of the electric or plug-in hybrid models currently on the market would meet their needs. And about 5 percent need to carry more passengers regularly than today's electric cars can accommodate (aside from the pricey Tesla Model S with an optional kids-only third-row seat).
In all, 25 percent of total respondents met all the criteria to drive a pure electric vehicle with little or no change in behavior, or about 60 percent of those who meet all the plug-in hybrid criteria.
Overall, 46 percent said that a pure EV or a plug-in hybrid could meet their household's transportation needs. Sixty percent said they would consider buying a vehicle that plugs in to save gas (or already own one).
Almost twice as many would consider buying a plug-in hybrid that can run on electricity and gasoline as would consider buying a pure electric car. But only 40 percent said they would consider buying a plug-in vehicle if they had to pay more for it, even if the additional cost would be offset by fuel savings within five years. Clearly, range limitations and up-front costs weigh heavily in the minds of consumers.
Plug-in vehicles were shown to be appropriate for about two of five drivers, yet a majority (65 percent) of respondents agreed with the statement: "Plug-in vehicles are an essential part of our transportation future for reducing oil use and global-warming pollution."
This number was even stronger among those who consider themselves well-informed about electric cars. Among the 45 percent who consider themselves knowledgeable about electric cars, more than 70 percent said they would consider buying one.
The largest concerns about electric vehicles were not about charging access, but about range (54 percent) and repair costs (55 percent). Only 37 percent were concerned about having access to a place to charge the car. Among those that would consider an EV for their next purchase, over half said that workplace charging would increase the likelihood they would buy. Apartment dwellers saw greater value in workplace charging, with 65 percent saying it would increase the likelihood of buying an EV.
Twenty percent were concerned about safety after reports of battery fires, and a matching 20 percent said they had no concerns.
The electric future
Americans say they believe electric cars are important to the nation's future, and according to our survey, the adoption rate could be increased with the ability to charge the car at work. This was especially true among apartment, townhouse, and condominium dwellers.
If all of the households that could potentially use an EV had one today, the nation would avoid 89 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions and save 15 billion gallons of gasoline each year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. That could yield a financial windfall of more than $50 billion a year for consumers. It seems to us that money could pay for a lot of charging outlets.