The electric vehicle (EV) market will be under the microscope in 2011, contends fresh research analysis, as both consumers and commercial fleets start buying them in greater numbers. According to a new white paper by Pike Research, 2011 is the year that will test the commercial viability for EVs in the U.S. market. The key will be whether these vehicles can successfully perform the various tasks demanded of them by everyday motorists and truck fleets alike

“The automotive industry is bedeviled by fundamental questions of the acceptance and use of electric vehicles,” said John Gartner, a senior analyst with Pike. “There is still a great deal of uncertainty about the issues of price sensitivity, ‘range anxiety’ and the importance of charging station networks [as well as] the length of time required to charge EVs, and other important matters.

“These questions can only be answered through real-world experience that is gained from commercial launches,” he added. “This is the year in which many of these answers will come into greater focus.”

Pike believes several key factors will come into play this year. First, so-called “range anxiety” will prove to be more fiction than fact, yet automakers are expected to feel pushback from EV owners on how long it takes to fully charge a vehicle.

Pike also expects many public EV charging stations will spend the majority of their time idle, as the majority of EV users won’t own them. That is to say, these users will either lease them and/or truck fleets-- not consumers-- will be the biggest initial adopters of this new technology.

That dovetails with other recent analyses of the EV market here. Consulting firm Frost & Sullivan’s EV market study, “Strategic Analysis of the North American and European Electric Truck, Van and Bus Markets,” projects that light-duty EVs – in this case Class 2-3 trucks configured as parcel delivery vans, shuttle buses, etc. – will offer the best opportunity for near-term growth within the U.S. commercial fleet sector. That’s because the research firm contends those trucks will offer the best fit in both life-cycle costs and operational capabilities.

Sandeep Kar, global program manager-commercial vehicle research for Frost & Sullivan, told FleetOwner that light-duty EVs – especially vans – are now nearing the crucial 4-year return on investment (ROI) mark. This ROI is determined by the cost savings attained by eliminating the cost of [liquid] fuel and reduced lifetime maintenance costs vs the incremental up-front cost of these vehicles.

“That cost of ownership is the crucial factor,” said Kar. “Our polling of fleet managers indicates 63% are focused on the total ownership cost, not the initial purchase price. So, once the ROI can be fully realized, fleets will adopt these vehicles.”

For example, the average ownership cost for a gasoline- or diesel-powered walk-in van varies between 25 and 48 cents a mile. If EVs can deliver an eight to 10 cent per mile life cycle cost, that would hit the needed ROI target, Kar pointed out.