As much-hyped electric cars arrive in European dealerships, carmakers face an uphill struggle to change drivers' mindsets and convince them that running cost and emission advantages will compensate for a reduction in autonomy.
Analysts say that initial sales are likely to be sluggish and the genre will make only small inroads into the broader car market, posing a challenge to carmakers with plenty at stake, including Renault and PSA Peugeot Citroen.
Renault and Japanese partner Nissan are investing 4 billion euros ($5.1 billion) in an EV project and forecast the category will make up 10 percent of the new car market by 2020.
PSA, which is bringing partner Mitsubishi's iMiEV to Europe badged as iOn and C-Zero, sees EVs accounting for 5 percent of new car sales in 2020. Volkswagen, Europe's top carmaker, wants to be the industry leader in EVs by 2018, but is not launching its first electric car until 2013.
Analysts say the first hurdle for companies to overcome is the skepticism of drivers used to being able to jump into their cars and drive, without waiting for a battery to charge or having to stop to top it up.
Stephen Stradling, Professor of Transport Psychology at Edinburgh's Napier University, said drivers would see giving up the autonomy and spontaneous mobility synonymous with an automobile as a barrier at first.
Nissan's Leaf, due to arrive in major European markets early next year, has a cruising range of 160 kilometers, while Peugeot's iOn and Citroen's C-Zero, on sale in Europe later this year, can drive around 130 kilometers on a full charge, compared with at least 500 kilometers in a small petrol-engined car.
Ensuring that electric cars look and handle like their predecessors would smooth the transition, said Stradling.
People work in categories: at the moment there is a category called vehicles and a separate category called electric vehicles. Electric vehicles have got to be incorporated into the category of vehicles -- they need to be normalized, he said.
INGREDIENTS FOR SUCCESS
HSBC analysts wrote in a report that they expected fully electric vehicles to account for 4.5 percent of the total light vehicle market by 2020 -- just 4.7 million vehicles out of a market of around 100 million.
Three factors are vital to the success of electric vehicles: awareness, infrastructure and government incentives.
Nissan is providing information to the regions, countries, cities and companies with which it has signed EV partnerships through a dedicated website, www.electric-mobility.com.
The first step is being able to educate people through conversations, media, our website. The next big thing we want to do is give people the chance to test-drive the vehicle, said Nissan Europe's chief marketing manager for EVs, Tom Smith.
On Citroen's C-Zero website by early May, 7,500 curious private and business customers had signed up for a test drive.
Thierry Koskas, head of Renault's EV project, said: When you ask people today they haven't really seen real EVs or they have the idea of golf carts.
In a bid to change this, Renault will get 500 cars on the roads in various European markets, before sales of the electric Kangoo and Fluence models start next year.
Public infrastructure, in the form of charging stations for EVs, will also be vital.
To bring about a change in individual behaviors you have to make it as easy as possible -- I don't need to expend too much personal effort to make this change, said Stradling.
Renault's Koskas agreed: Visibility is key. Probably most people will purely recharge at home and they will very rarely use the plugs in the streets or car parks. But I think that simply seeing they exist will help the market to increase.
Carmakers will rely on government subsidies and tax breaks to make electric cars -- which will cost more than ordinary models to start with -- affordable to consumers.
Running costs will depend on power prices and the payment model -- some drivers may rent their batteries -- but Nissan says driving a kilometer in an EV could cost as little as one euro, compared with 10 euros in a petrol car.
European prices for Nissan's Leaf, a medium-sized hatchback, are set to be announced shortly. In Japan the car is priced at 2.99 million yen ($32,340), including 770,000 of government incentives, leaving it at a premium of around 30 percent to Toyota's popular Prius hybrid.
If governments want the market to take off ... they have to support it, said Koskas, adding that over time, incentives would become less necessary.
France, one of the countries at the forefront of Europe's clean car drive, will pay EV buyers a 5,000 euro bonus.
EARLY PROFITS, BUT VOLUMES?
Renault says its EVs will be profitable from day one, with government backing making up for the lack of economies of scale in early low sales volumes.
Early EV sales in Europe are expected to be overwhelmingly to businesses looking for ecologically sound fleets.
Endorsement by respected companies could help win over wary individuals, said transport psychologist Dr Ian Walker, of the University of Bath.
If businesses take them up that might be quite a lever. In particular if they are pushed toward the high-fliers in the business, then that would probably have an impact, Walker said.
Carmakers still have their work cut out: even if Renault and Nissan's ambitious prediction comes true it would mean 90 percent of drivers buying a new car in 2020 will still opt for non-electric cars.
Nissan's Smith was sanguine: We recognize that EVs, particularly in their infancy, are not for everybody -- and that's OK, he said.
(Editing by Sitaraman Shankar)