Kevin Bullis

A View from Kevin Bullis

Potential Market for Plug-in Hybrids

Consumers want them–once they know what they are.

  • May 17, 2007

A new study shows that when consumers understand what plug-in hybrids are, they want them. The vehicles, which have large onboard batteries, can be recharged overnight by plugging them in, storing enough electricity to power daily commutes. For longer distances, a gasoline engine kicks in, assisting the electric motor and recharging the battery. The major automakers do not yet offer plug-in hybrids, but several are developing them. For those consumers who can’t wait, a handful of companies offer conversion kits for conventional hybrids.

Of the more than 3,000 consumers asked if they would consider buying a “grid-connected hybrid,” the term used for plug-in hybrids in the survey, only 24 percent said that they would, according to the survey by Synovate Motoresearch. But when they were told what such a car could do, that figure nearly tripled, to 64 percent. That’s well above the percentage of people who would consider buying an ordinary hybrid, like the Toyota Prius, which doesn’t have extended battery-powered range. Scott Miller, the CEO of Synovate Motoresearch, presented the survey’s results this week at the Advanced Automotive Battery Conference in Long Beach, CA.

The results suggest that consumers like the idea of the plug-in hybrid–but that so far, car companies are doing a lousy job of getting the word out. That’s not the case with flex-fuel vehicles, though. These cars, which can burn either gasoline or a mixture of 85 percent ethanol, scored high on the desirability charts–that is, until consumers were told more about them. Flex-fuel vehicles have been the subject of heavy promotion by automakers. But the marketing campaigns have fallen short of providing all the details: consumers thought that flex-fuel improved fuel economy, Miller said. Actually, the opposite is true. Ethanol contains much less energy than gasoline does, so miles per gallon will be significantly lower, as will range on a tank of gas. When consumers were told this, the percentage of people who would consider buying the cars dropped from 52 to 33 percent.

It remains to be seen if the desirability of plug-ins is enough to overcome their steep price tag. They could cost thousands of dollars more than a conventional hybrid, which already comes at a premium. Still, consumers are willing to shell out thousands of dollars more for SUVs than for minivans because of their perceived advantages. So if the word gets out and the cars get built, plug-ins might just be the next big thing.

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