While it could be said to be anyone’s guess how electric vehicles in the U.S. will be adopted in coming years, nearly every stakeholder is at least attempting to estimate it one way or the other, not least of these being General Motors.

In a study funded by a GM research grant, and conducted by the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) in Ann Arbor, Mich., researchers did their best to wade through available data to project EV deployment in America's 50 states from 2011-2015.

Beyond early adopters who see the need, what will it take to get more Americans to embrace electric vehicles? (Photo of Chevrolet Volt courtesy of GM.)

Lead researcher, Kim Hill was quick to qualify that projections made by the study – which was released in January – could be subject to wide fluctuations in coming months and years depending on a long list of not-easily predictable variables.

Even top-level executives for EV-pioneering companies including Nissan, Ford and GM, among others, have said that by 2020, EVs could represent anywhere from 2-10 percent of the global auto market, with about 5 percent being an average estimate.

Where hybrids have first gone, the researchers say EVs shall soon follow. Aside from a few earlier EVs such as the EV1, their nationwide deployment is otherwise precedent setting, so hybrid stats were used as a "proxy" for lack of more information to go on.

With advances in alternative energy continually being announced, and worldwide political and economic uncertainty also having their effect, even those at the forefront of the push for EVs admit no one possesses infallible insight.

Nevertheless, the study does what it can to make specific projections based on factors including automakers’ own manufacturing and sales forecasts, articles from the media, and known expenditures or promised expenditures by government and industry that will foster EV deployment.

The researchers also based their findings on known facts about hybrid deployment. Their assumption is that individual people and whole regions which first adopted and supported hybrids would be more likely to support fully electric (and Extended Range Electric) vehicles.

Beyond the free market
A simple capitalistic model of consumer supply and demand is said to be insufficient to bring EVs into full acceptance in any kind of a timely fashion.

Factors that stand to affect EV deployment include all forms of government incentives on the local, state and federal level.

A byproduct of living in this democracy is that there is uneven distribution of incentives state by state.

In lieu of pennies from heaven, the CAR researchers said dollars from government agencies will serve just fine to help facilitate a swifter, smoother EV deployment.

To further help prime the pump, significant EV purchases are expected by federal, state, local and corporate fleets.

The study says U.S. government purchases will be instrumental to EV market penetration and cites a few commitments already announced to buy EVs, noting the government was “vital” to hybrid sales, as one of their most significant consumers.

“The federal government has been one of the largest purchasers of hybrid fleet vehicles,” the study says, “In the past two fiscal years, the federal government has purchased 64 percent of all GM Chevy Malibu hybrid models, 29 percent of all Ford Fusion hybrid models, and 14 percent of all Ford Escape hybrids.”

A similar trend would be needed, or at least most helpful for EVs, the study suggests.

Notable among corporate early EV adopters is General Electric, which has committed to buying 25,000 EVs, of which at least 15,000 will replace existing vehicles in its 30,000-vehicle fleet. GE has said its first 12,000 will be Chevrolet Volts.

Other substantial fleet purchases include those expected to come from FedEx, Staples, Frito Lay, and Enterprise Holding rental car company, among others.

Beyond fleet purchases, another linchpin will be government-industry partnerships.

These include a large variety of EV-facilitating initiatives through Clean Cities , The EV Project , ChargePoint Americas , Better Place and others.

Consumer demand

The study says decisions by automakers to deploy first-generation EVs has been (and will continue to be) weighted toward communities already deemed most “electrical vehicle ready.”

As mentioned, a higher acceptance of hybrids in these regions has already been documented.

Unlikely to surprise the readers of this site, the study predicts consumer decisions will continue to be affected by factors including, but not limited to: cost of fuel, monetary incentives (including grants, rebates, tax credits, loans, or registration fee exemptions).

Other factors affecting consumer acceptance include special parking privileges, and privileges usually only multiple-occupant petrol vehicles and motorcyclists enjoy – accessibility to High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) and High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes.

Overall, it is noted Colorado and California lead the way in sweetening the deal for EV early adopters. Other states showing stronger than average commitment include Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Utah.

And speaking of first adopters, aside from those willing to contend with limited-range commutes, potential EV buyers will also be swayed by existence of public or privately available charging facilities.

Much more must be done to make more red dots appear in the middle part of the map.

The lion’s share of public electric recharging stations presently is in California, the study says, with about 431 of the 603 listed in the Department of Energy’s database.

Other states lagging behind, the study says, include Oregon with 39, Texas with 22, Washington state with 15, Illinois with nine, and Florida and Hawaii each having seven. A “significant” investment is also underway in New England.

(We would note it's also likely these recharging station numbers will soon be outdated, as new ones are continually added, as is the case, for example with recent reports coming from Chicago that 280 new stations are to be installed by year's end.)

Crunching the variables

As can be discerned by some of the charts, the 21-page report sorts through many more variables than we’ve only touched on.

Even so, the study – which can be downloaded from CAR’s Web site – concedes it cannot predict the future, but does its best to do so anyway given what is known about the past and present.

And now, the numbers that you've been waiting for. Question is, how accurate will they prove to be given rapidly advancing alternative energy technology, and unpredictably unstable political times which have recently demonstrated that whole regimes can be challenged and toppled in the matter of days?

Certainly the need to know is there, and by their presumably looking objectively as possible at available information, the researchers have at least taken steps toward transcending mere faith, educated guesses and intuition.

The study says its findings are presented not as a sales forecast, but as information available to leaders and policymakers to better enable them to decide if, how, where and when to spend resources toward an EV future.

We all want the security and comfort that comes from a certain future. This is one group's best estimate given what is known. For EV advocates, an upward line is good. Aside from negatives like threats to the world reserve currency, and an increasing price for oil, what positive steps could be taken to make this line crest even higher?

Whether its insight will prove accurate remains to be seen, but the study at least makes clear that EV deployment is a grand global experiment.

As with any cause, there are those who embrace it early, and those who will need more information, if not also stronger motivation than they presently have.