Was Electric Car Poll Biased?

Fifty-seven percent of Americans said they wouldn’t consider buying an electric vehicle, no matter the price of gas.

Charles Murray

June 24, 2011

3 Min Read
Was Electric Car Poll Biased?

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll has apparently shocked much of the green world.

The poll results, published in May, revealed that many Americans still aren’t interested in pure electric cars. The poll asked a sample of 1,024 adults a simple question: “How high do you think gas prices would have to rise before you would buy an electric car that you could only drive for a limited number of miles at one time?”

Fifty-seven percent of those adults said they would not buy an electric car, no matter the price of gasoline. What’s particularly interesting about the results, though, is the fact that the pollsters broke down the answers by gasoline price and found that as the prices rose, fewer Americans would be willing to buy an electric car. With a gasoline price of under $6 per gallon, for example, 12 percent said they would consider an EV. After that, the percentages dropped: from $6 to $7.99, 10 percent; from $8 to $10, 9 percent; and above $10 a gallon, just 3 percent.

Shouldn’t we expect it to be the other way around? If the criterion were the price of gasoline, shouldn’t more Americans say, “Well, if gas hits 10 bucks a gallon, I’ll consider going electric.”

What this tells us is that two diametrically opposed camps have formed. On one side, we have the EV proponents, many of whom would buy a battery-operated electric car, even if gasoline were free. On the other side, we have 57 percent of Americans who simply won’t consider an EV.

This, of course, is confounding for the hardcore electric car crowd. After USA Today published a front-page story headlined, "Americans say no to electric cars despite gas prices" some green Websites cried foul. Plugincars.com ran a story saying, "Bias alert: survey says 57 percent would never buy an electric vehicle." And greenchipstocks.com wrote, "Another anti-electric car article exposed!"

But the problem isn’t the article. And it isn’t the poll. The critical passage in the Gallup survey is this: "…you could only drive for a limited number of miles at one time."

The results tell us that when many Americans see that phrase, they balk. Sure, many have heard the statistics that say 75 percent of Americans drive 40 miles a day or less. And many know that approximately 90 percent of all driving is within the range of EVs.

But what about the other 10 percent of our driving? Do we need another car just for that? If we deliver the kids to college, or take the family on a short vacation, do we have to make a trip to the local Avis first?

The problem remains: For many Americans, pure electric vehicles -- that is, battery-driven vehicles -- still have too little range to serve as a good first car and are too expensive to serve as a backup. In this economy, many consumers can’t plunk down $30,000 or $40,000 on a second car.

That’s why General Motors, in its wisdom, decided to put an internal combustion engine and a gas tank on the Chevy Volt. Like it or not, the Volt teaches us that gasoline is still an important part of the energy mix.

American consumers recognize that, and they have every right to. Yes, we could say they’re biased: But they’re merely biased toward financial responsibility.

About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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