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Why Electric Cars Will Succeed Even Though Six in Ten Americans Don't Want Them

Sure, Americans claim they don't want electric cars. But demand isn't the problem right now.


A new USA Today/Gallup poll asked Americans about their interest in electric cars. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they “won't buy an all-electric car no matter the price of gas.”

USA Today uses those numbers to make the standard case that the electric car is doomed because it just doesn't appeal to the public.


That's a stiff headwind just as automakers are developing electrics to help meet tighter federal rules that could require their fleets to average as high as 62 miles per gallon in 2025. And President Obama has set a goal of a million electric vehicles in use in the U.S. by 2015.

The anti-electric sentiment unmasked by the poll shows that pure electrics—defined in the poll question as "an electric car that you could only drive for a limited number of miles at one time"—could have trouble getting a foothold in the U.S.

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First of all, there's no car—gas, hybrid, hydrogen, or electric—that you can drive for an unlimited number of miles at one time. The semantics of the poll are a little suspect.

But let's take the results at face value. If six in ten Americans say they'll never buy an electric car, why do Tesla and Nissan bother?

Well, because they're still selling like hotcakes. According to Edmunds, in the first three months of 2011, hybrid and electric car sales were up by 37 percent. Toyota's Prius Alpha got eight times as many pre-orders as expected. The Nissan Leaf has a 20,000-person waiting list.

Articles like this new one in USA Today miss the big picture: Yes, the market for electric cars is a lot smaller than the market for cars. But there's still much higher demand for electric cars than the car companies can satisfy. People debated at length whether the Nissan Leaf all-electric car would be practical or cheap enough for the mainstream. But that debate was moot because Nissan doesn't have enough Leafs to sell to the mainstream anyway. The company is going to have no problem selling the 10,000-plus Leafs it's hustling to crank out in 2011. The limiting factor right now is not public interest in electric cars, it's the car companies' ability to make them.

And demand will always outstrip supply. Run this same poll in two years when electric cars are cheaper, have longer ranges, charge more quickly, and gas is at $5 a gallon. Fewer Americans will have this "anti-electric sentiment" USA Today uncovered and the car companies will still be struggling to keep up.

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