Wow, Americans sure don’t know much about electric cars and hybrids. The market research firm Synovate asked 1,898 new car buyers a few basic questions about how they work, and got some answers indicating there’s still a fairly big cloud around this technology. You know that hybrid cars don’t have to be plugged in, right? Well, 28 percent in the poll think they do. And 40 percent are convinced that plug in hybrids have no tailpipe emissions — but they sure do!

Synovate gave consumers Cs for knowledge about battery cars and hybrids, and a D on plug-in hybrids.

It’s likely that this level of confusion will get in the way of sales, at least in the short term. “Dealers will have to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining the workings of plug-in hybrids and battery electric cars to interested buyers,” said Stephen Popiel, a senior vice president of Synovate Motoresearch. “Will the person who goes to their Chevy dealer to buy a Volt, or their Nissan dealer to buy a Leaf, still make the purchase once they discover the need for plugs and 220-volt outlets?”

Good question. It might be a bit of a shock when the 51 percent of respondents who think that battery cars can be recharged in less than 15 minutes learn that the process actually takes from four to eight hours. Less than 40 percent know that plug-in hybrids have both a gas engine and “batteries to power an electric motor.” That means they’re not likely to line up to buy them.

The early adopters likely to make up most of the buyers this year certainly know how these cars work — they’ve been following the introductions closely. But most people are only listening with half an ear, and much of what they think they know is wrong. Actually, it doesn’t help that information on these cars tends to be overly technical, and replete with terms like PHEV, BEV and HEV that might leave people shaking their heads.

So, in the interest of public education, here’s a non-techy primer on how these things work:

  • Hybrid: Uses an electric motor and a battery pack as an assist (and sometimes to drive the car short distances), complementing a relatively small gas engine. The hybrid (the Toyota Prius is by far the most popular example) never needs to be plugged in.
  • Plug-in hybrid: As above, but with a larger battery pack, plug-in capability, and the ability to drive from 10 to 50 miles on electric power alone.
  • Battery electric. A lithium-ion battery pack (averaging around 20 to 25 kilowatt-hours) supplies power to an electric motor. No gasoline backup. These cars have a range of about 100 miles, though Tesla among others is working to make them go a lot further.
And here's a quick video on the basics of electric car technology:

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