J.D. Power – Despite Rising Fuel Prices, the Outlook for “Green” Vehicles Remains Limited image

Growth of alternative powertrain vehicles sales will be limited by consumer concerns about costs as well as functionality, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2011 U.S. Green Automotive Study(SM) released today.

Despite a rapid increase in the number of alternative powertrain vehicle models projected for the next several years, automakers will be fighting over the relatively few consumers who are willing to drive green.

The inaugural study examines attitudes of U.S. consumers toward four primary alternative powertrain technologies: hybrid electric vehicles; clean diesel engines; plug-in hybrid electric vehicles; and battery electric vehicles. The study gauges consumer consideration rates of these powertrain types for their next new vehicle purchase and explores specific perceived benefits and concerns that factor into the decision-making process.

While consumers often cite saving money on fuel as the primary benefit of owning an alternative powertrain vehicle, the reality for many is that the initial cost of these vehicles is too high, even as fuel prices in the United States approach record levels. Reduced expenditure on fuel is the predominant benefit cited by considerers for each of the primary alternative powertrain technologies examined in the study.

Although the environmental benefits of these vehicles are recognized, they are mentioned far less frequently than saving money on fuel. For example, 75 percent of consumers who indicate they would consider a hybrid electric vehicle cite lower fuel costs as a main benefit. In contrast only 50 percent cite ‘better for the environment’ as a main benefit of these vehicles.

According to VanNieuwkuyk, concern about the purchase price of alternative powertrain vehicles—particularly for hybrid electric vehicles—has become even more of an issue in 2011. At the end of 2010, tax credits from the Energy Policy Act of 2005 were phased out.

“Hybrid electric vehicles have been available in the automotive market for more than 10 years, and consumer awareness and understanding of them has grown during that time,” said VanNieuwkuyk. “As concerns about the functionality and performance of hybrid vehicles have abated, vehicle price has become more prevalent as the primary purchase impediment. Without a tax credit to offset the price premium, consumers must absorb all of this additional cost. Furthermore, aggressive government subsidies are unlikely to be sustainable over the long term. Ultimately, the true cost of the technology needs to come down substantially.”

Although there are also significant price premiums for battery electric vehicles, functional concerns are more likely to limit consideration rates for this powertrain. Driving range and the availability of charging sites away from home are the two concerns cited most often by those not considering this powertrain. This “range anxiety” contributes to the lowest consideration levels of the primary alternative powertrain technologies.

By the end of 2016, J.D. Power and Associates expects there to be 159 hybrid and electric vehicle models available for purchase in the U.S. market. This is a significant increase from only 31 hybrid and electric models in 2009.