Demand for electric vehicles bucks low gas prices, says AAA

The plug-in version of the Honda Clarity is displayed at the 2017 New York International Auto Show in New York City, U.S. April 12, 2017.
Lucas Jackson | Reuters

Lower gas prices have not dampened enthusiasm for electric cars, according to a new report from the Automobile Association of America.

More than 30 million Americans are likely to buy an electric vehicle as their next car, and demand among millennials is especially high.

In fact, demand for electric cars may be as robust as it is for pickup trucks, according to the report, which was based on a survey of 1,004 adults from Feb. 16-19.

Reasons for interest in electric cars vary, with 87 percent citing a concern for the environment, 62 percent citing lower long‐term costs, 52 percent wanting cutting‐edge technology, 29 percent wanting car pool lane access, and 12 percent giving "other reasons."

On the other hand, Americans who are unlikely to buy an electric vehicle or are undecided are worried about the availability of charging stations and fear running out of battery power. More than half of them say the cars cost more than they want to pay, and they also are worried about battery repair and replacement costs.

There are sure to be those who will be skeptical of the survey.

"The AAA survey does not correlate at all with what Cox Automotive's Kelley Blue Book or Autotrader see in surveys or in shopping and sales data," said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for Autotrader, in an email to CNBC. "Quite the contrary. If people are saying they are interested in electric vehicles and intend to make their next purchase one, then that interest is not translating into sales."

Krebs said Autotrader anticipates sales of new pickup trucks will rise to 13 percent of all new vehicle sales for 2017, with compact and midsize SUV's being the fastest growing segments.

"In contrast," she said, "the entire category of EVs, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, etc. is under 3 percent of all new vehicle sales. It has been shrinking, not growing, even before gas prices dropped. It is the most heavily discounted (biggest incentives) segment with the lowest resale values. If the tax credits go away, the segment is in even more trouble."

Sales of all-electric cars numbered about 86,000 last year, up 500 percent since 2012, said AAA Director of Automotive Engineering Greg Brannon, in an interview with CNBC.

So while electric vehicle sales are a small portion of total vehicles sales of around 17.5 million, "customers are putting their money where their mouths are."

Indeed, electric cars make up only a small fraction — around 1 percent — of all car sales in the U.S., far outpaced by SUVs and crossovers with internal combustion engines.

But car companies are still releasing new plug-ins, full electrics, and even hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars.

For example, Honda recently announced it will offer both full battery electric, and plug-in hybrid versions of its Clarity model, adding to the original Clarity with a hydrogen fuel cell-based power train. The company unveiled the new models at the New York Auto Show on April 12, and said it plans to make two-thirds of its global vehicle sales electric by 2030.

And a bevy of new electric cars is expected in the next few years from major automakers, joining those offered by Kia, Mini, Porsche, BMW, Toyota, and Chevrolet.

How much consumers will want them remains to be seen.