The year 2012 is looking like a huge one for the introduction of electric vehicles. This includes cars that are fully electric, like the Nissan Leaf, and those that are plug-in hybrids, much like the Chevrolet Volt, which operates as a plug-in electric but also has a gasoline engine.
In this year's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his desire for there to be 1 million advanced-technology vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015.
Anyone could be forgiven for thinking that electric vehicles have gone mainstream. But, in reality, we are not there yet.
"They are plausible because they are already in the market. They are feasible because you can charge them up overnight at your house," said Michael Omotoso, senior manager for global powertrain at J.D. Power and Associates.
If you can sense a "but" coming, you are right.
"We expect commercial success to be very limited for the first 10 years, because we don't have the infrastructure yet," he said.
A J.D. Power study in late October titled "Drive Green 2020: More Hope than Reality?" found that future global demand for hybrid and battery electric vehicles "may be overhyped."
The company estimates that only 20,000 of the 12.5 million vehicles expected to be sold in the U.S. this year will be pure battery-driven electric vehicles. That number has since been reduced to 15,000. (Nissan sold 452 Leafs through the end of March.)
J.D. Power expects 12,000 plug-in hybrid vehicle sales this year. (Through the end of March, Chevrolet sold 1,210 Volts.)
Several other studies and surveys have looked at some of the issues that could hinder widespread acceptance of electric vehicles despite the interest in them.
One out in February — "Plug-in Electric Vehicles: A Practical Plan for Progress" — by a panel working with Indiana University, noted that without another global spike in oil prices, consumer demand might be limited to enthusiastic early technology adopters and relatively affluent city dwellers because of uncertainties about the new technology.
Early adopters who were the first to buy conventional hybrids 10 years ago will be the first to buy electric vehicles and plug-ins, Omotoso said.
He thinks it will be more than 10 years before mainstream buyers start buying electrics and plug-ins.
Adding more models in more segments should help increase sales of electric vehicles, much the way it did with conventional hybrids, Omotoso said.
"The first few years, we only had the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, and that's why hybrid sales were very small," he said. Now that there are hybrids in all market segments, sales have increased.
A study undertaken by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., estimates sales of electric vehicles, plug-ins and fuel-cell vehicles will nearly double, from 77,000 in 2012 to 140,000 in 2015.
A Consumer Reports survey late last year summed up some of the concerns of those mainstream buyers. In fact, 94 percent of the 1,713 adult vehicle owners surveyed by Consumer Reports National Research Center find electric cars and hybrids lacking in some way.
Of those surveyed, 66 percent cited a high purchase price as the chief disadvantage; 60 percent were worried about inadequate refueling or recharging infrastructure; and 58 percent worried about limited driving range.
When it comes to range anxiety, the all-electric Leaf, which never uses gasoline, can go 100 miles on a single charge. Consumer Reports' April issue, though, found the range severely restricted by electric heaters that gobble up kilowatts during cold weather. During a cold snap, the magazine reported, the Leaf averaged 65 miles on a single charge.
The Volt is more flexible. It gets 25 to 50 miles on a single electric charge before a gasoline-powered generator provides electricity to power the wheels for an additional 300 miles.
When it comes to the infrastructure to recharge vehicles, Omotoso said: "We have 160,000 gas stations across the country, but there are fewer than 1,000 public charging stations."
Still, range anxiety might be slightly overblown. At least that is Nissan's argument.
Nissan said U.S. census data show that 95 percent of Americans drive fewer than 100 miles a day and 75 percent drive fewer than 40 miles daily. Sixty-three percent of those who responded to the Consumer Reports survey said they traveled fewer than 40 miles a day.
When it comes to cost, of the handful of electric vehicles for sale, one is the $100,000 Tesla Roadster; another is the $41,000 Volt, "a small car that is priced like a Cadillac CTS," Omotoso said. It makes the $33,630 Leaf seem highly affordable.
A maximum $7,500 federal tax credit helps bring costs down, and there is talk about turning it into a rebate that consumers get immediately at purchase instead of waiting until tax time. Incentives are scheduled to end after the first 200,000 electric vehicles are sold, but proposals to increase that to 500,000 vehicles are out there.
Keep in mind that changes are taking place in gasoline engine and transmission technology, which are improving fuel economy at a much lower cost than electric vehicles, Omotoso said.
Given all the market uncertainty, how realistic is meeting the goal of 1 million green vehicles by 2015?
J.D. Power's forecast is that we'll get to 700,000 or 750,000 — short of the target but still significant, Omotoso said.
The Indiana University study said it is unlikely, given automakers' current production plans.
But the panel thought it could happen within a few years after that.
It's a long road before plug-in vehicles reach mainstream