Okay, So There Are No Plug-In Hybrids, But 25% Might Buy One

There may not be any plug-in hybrid cars for sale in the U.S., but if there were, a lot of consumers would want one. A new study by Harris Interactive suggests that more than 25% of car buyers would consider a plug-in hybrid vehicle for their next purchase.

For the record, a plug-in hybrid is designed to run entirely on electricity, at least for short trips at lower velocities. Also for the record: such cars have never been in the U.S. market in notable volume, except for General Motors' brief experiment with its late '90s EV1 car of which GM delivered somewhere north of 1,000 to high-profile lessees in California, before reeling them back in and impounding them. The car was the subject of a documentary, "Who Killed the Electric Car?," last year.

General Motors has said it is planning on production--at some point--of its new plug-in Volt concept, a hybrid that can also potentially run on ethanol and diesel, and has enough juice to travel 40 miles on electricity alone between charges. GM has been showing it off at events and auto shows.



Ford has also bowed a plug-in electric take on its Edge crossover, powered by a hydrogen fuel cell battery. Also, brass at GM, Chrysler Group and Ford have reportedly fired off a joint missive to the Bush administration asking it to triple money allotted for government-funded battery research.

Acceptance of hybrid gas-electric vehicles has seeped beyond the blue states, with sales of hybrids up nearly 50% in the first seven months of this year, according to R.L. Polk & Co., which says the boom is driven by big sales in the Midwest.

On Wednesday, electric plug-in vehicles were also the star of an industry event in Washington, D.C., organized by IEEE-USA, the U.S. public policy arm of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

According to the Harris Interactive AutoTechcast study, which polled around 10,000 American consumers in July on their familiarity and affection for hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and diesel, 27% of U.S. vehicle owners are likely, very likely or extremely likely to include plug-in hybrid engine technology in their next vehicle. When presented with a suggested market price premium of $3,200, consideration drops to 16%.

"Hybrids performed higher on inclusion on next vehicle and familiarity, and once the estimated market price of each was mentioned, hybrid [non plug-in] was only slightly better [as a feature polled consumers would favor]," says Stephen Lovett, Director of Automotive & Transportation Research at Harris Interactive.

The study suggests the biggest challenge for vehicles like Volt is consumer awareness and understanding. Only 23% of respondents said they were either extremely (3%), very (6%) or just familiar (14%) with the nuts and bolts of plug-in hybrid power.

But Lovett says that favorable responses to plug-in jumped after respondents got a primer on the technology. "Once we explained the technology, 52% said that they would be much more likely to include it on their next vehicle--if we didn't mention the estimated price," he says.

The strongest positive note came from respondents who own a compact SUV, of whom 45% said they were likely to purchase a plug-in hybrid for their next vehicle, versus 31% of compact car owners, and 36% of sports car owners.

Among those who say there were least likely to include plug-in hybrid vehicles on their shopping lists, 84% did say they would prefer plugging in to filling up at the gas station.

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