DETROIT -- Electric vehicles could account for up to 16 percent of new-vehicle sales in New York City by 2015, according to a study released this week by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co.
If that estimate holds true, the streets of New York could see the total number of electric cars reach 70,000 over the next five years.
The statistics underscore how the auto industry -- and government leaders in the United States and other countries -- are preparing for the onslaught of electric vehicles into markets around the world in the new few years.
Paris and Shanghai also could see electric-powered automobiles representing 9 and 5 percent, respectively, of new-car sales by 2015, the study said.
“Understanding the consumer perspective -- both the early adopters and the rest of the market -- is critical to achieving the electric-car breakthrough,” Stefan Knupfer, head of McKinsey's automotive and assembly practice in the Americas, said in a statement. “That's why we carried out extensive market research in three megacities around the globe.”
Plug-ins will be popular
The study follows a yearlong research project led by the firm, in partnership with the cities of New York and Shanghai and the French government. Their work examined the market potential of electric cars in large cities.
More than 1,500 individuals in New York and Shanghai took part in the consumer surveys. According to the study, plug-in hybrids will make up more than half of the electric cars sold in New York, Paris and Shanghai by 2015.
Plug-in hybrid elective vehicles, or PHEVs, have an advantage over vehicles that are solely powered by electricity. Plug-in hybrids require a smaller battery and because of that are usually cheaper. They also achieve a greater driving range because of their auxiliary combustion engine.
According to the study, New York's initial electric cars would be strictly battery-powered and would account for as much as 6 percent of new-car registrations in the city by 2015. But in Paris, for example, PHEVs could account for about 80 percent of new electric-car sales by the same time, the study suggests.
Finding the right ways to urge consumers to buy electric cars will challenge policymakers. About 40 percent of consumers are unfamiliar with electric vehicles, according to the release. And incentives will vary from city to city.
The key factor that will bring electric cars into the cities: sustainable infrastructure of vehicle charging networks. In the short term, owners will be able to charge their cars in private or public parking garages, according to the surveys. But for more consumers to become involved, public charging sites would need to be developed, the study said.
President Barack Obama aims to put a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 as part of the new U.S. effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming.
“Your head starts spinning when you think of what the possibilities and opportunities are but also the complexity,” Bill Nicholson, who leads the electric-vehicle initiative at Portland General Electric in Oregon, told Reuters last fall.
He does not expect utilities to be big players in setting up charging stations, although they will provide the power.
Said Nicholson: “There will be some pretty large players in the charging station infrastructure business who will then partner with some pretty large players in the information side of this, the IBMs of the world and others that do nationwide deployment of standardized charging stations.”
A viable business?
Skeptics say charging stations won't be a viable business because drivers will top off batteries at home, except on long trips, and won't want to pay a premium for electricity.
“We've found that about 90 percent of our customers' charging happens at home,” said JB Straubel, chief technology officer at Tesla Motors. Tesla makes a $100,000-plus electric sports car whose 300-mile range is triple that of mass market vehicles from other makers planning to enter the market late next year.
Proponents counter that charging stations will proliferate once a million or more electric cars are on the roads. Most charging will be done at home, but some cars don't even have a garage.
“If you live in San Francisco, 51 percent of all cars are parked curbside at night,” said Richard Lowenthal, founder and CEO of Coulomb Technologies, which aims to sell about a thousand charging stations this year at $2,000-plus each.
Reuters contributed to this report