Despite aggressive government promotion, Chinese consumers didn't warm up to electric cars until recently.
Sales lagged until picking up late last year, although they've maintained their momentum so far in the early part of this year.
China may even surpass the U.S. in electric-car sales this year, if early sales figures prove accurate.
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Now, a new study indicates this recent sales spurt may be the result of latent consumer trends. It claims Chinese buyers have always been more open to electric cars than Americans.
The study (via Charged EVs) was conducted by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, Ford, and Drexel University.
2016 BYD Tang plug-in hybrid SUV, made in China
They compared consumer preferences for internal-combustion cars, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric cars in the U.S. and China, using data from surveys conducted in 2012 and 2013.
The results showed that U.S. consumers had a significantly lower interest in paying specifically for an electric powertrain than their Chinese counterparts.
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Researchers believe that's because of certain realities of Chinese life.
About two thirds of Chinese consumers are first-time buyers, so they aren't predisposed to internal combustion engines as are U.S. buyers who've owned many of them already.
Many Chinese buyers have also owned electric bicycles, so the concept of recharging is less alien to them.
2014 Tesla Model S in China
While lack of charging infrastructure is still an issue, China also has a more robust national passenger rail network--which provides a viable alternative for longer trips that would have to be made by car in the U.S.
However, while they see greater potential for electric-car adoption in China, researchers don't think this trend will have as positive an environmental impact as it would in the U.S.
China's electricity grid is presently much dirtier than the U.S. grid, which boosts the carbon footprint of electric cars that charge from it.
For the maximum benefit of all those new electric cars to be felt, China will have to shift to cleaner energy sources.
Kandi electric car (Image: Kandi Technologies Group)
While the study points to sustainable growth in electric-car sales, it doesn't fully explain the recent sales spike.
The Chinese government has been incentivizing electric cars and other "New Energy Vehicles" for years, and more recently, cities began restricting new car sales.
Yet sales growth has only been recorded over the past few months, meaning it could be difficult to predict exactly how the market will change going forward.