DETROIT – If Harris Interactive Inc.’s latest online poll is on target, the American consumer is willing to pay their prettiest pennies to save at the pump and save lives in crashes.

The market polling and research firm’s annual AUTOTECHCAST advanced automotive technologies report, released in its inaugural form this month, suggests consumers are willing to shell out an additional $1,673, on average, for hybrid-electric vehicle (HEV) technology on their next vehicle; $1,269 for fuel cells and $667 for clean diesels. They also are willing to part with $500-$700 for many safety technologies.

Consumers: Hybrid technology worth $1,673.

In fact, customers are willing to pay more for safety and fuel economy than infotainment, performance or convenience options, and they say safety and fuel economy are the biggest differentiators in swaying a buying decision, Harris Interactive’s Scott Upham, senior vice president-automotive and transportation research group says.

The study – about 1,000 pages of charts, graphs and statistical analysis – aims to tell auto makers and suppliers which of 50 advanced technologies the 14,424 customers are most interested in seeing in future vehicles, and how much they would pay for them. The technology list was gleaned during April interviews with Harris’ supplier and OEM customers, including General Motors Corp., and presented to survey participants in November.

To determine demand, Harris asked participants to provide their own price point for technologies. Respondents consistently offered prices below the current-market value.

“This is a true measure of what people are willing to pay above and beyond the cost of the vehicle,” Upham says, adding that as scale production ramps up for technologies such as hybrids (which buyers say are worth $1,673, but cost more than $3,000), the actual price tag will be more in line with what mainstream buyers are willing to pay.

While AUTOTECHCAST gauges interest in myriad advanced technologies, Upham says one of the most consistent threads running through customer demand patterns for both male and female respondents is a preference for fuel-saving technologies over comfort items, such as telematics, entertainment and navigation systems – a preference that may have more to do with a sustained wave of increasing fuel prices than anything else.

“One of the most significant findings in AUTOTECHCAST is how gas prices are affecting consumer’s vehicle-purchase decisions,” Upham says. Rising gas prices have held steady at $2 per gallon over the last 18 months.

However, the study is published as gasoline prices decline, potentially diminishing the attractiveness of fuel-saving technology.

Upham says Harris will conduct another wave of polling in the spring as part of its plan to publish the results of two studies every year. The firm believes it will be able to track the impact of a deflation of gas prices should it occur.

The regular updates also will help shed light on the legitimacy of the following findings of the first annual AUTOTECHCAST:

  • Volvo drivers see themselves as the most technically savvy buyers in the U.S., as well as the most social, Upham says of findings related to how consumers interact with technology and other people. Other top “socialite” brands (meaning current social and civil-activity participation and communication with non-relatives at work) include Jaguar, Saab, Acura and BMW buyers, respectively. The other top five tech-savvy brands (meaning knowledge base of various technologies and interest in learning new ones) include Audi, Jaguar, BMW and Suzuki buyers. Mercedes-Benz was the only larger-volume European luxury brand not in the top 10 of either category.

  • Buyers are only marginally interested in convenience features such as park-by-wire, and can be confused by features such as child left-in-vehicle warning systems. Upham says some technology, while important, often goes unexplained, and some is just not mature enough to elicit demand.

  • Only 10 of the 50 technologies fell under the convenience or infotainment categories. The top five included wireless hands-free phones; satellite radio (helped by radio host Howard Stern’s move to Sirius, Upham says); digital surround sound; heated seats; and music storage drives.

  • When it came to safety technology, buyers will pay heaviest for 4-wheel steering ($694), pre-crash sensing ($626) and stability control ($601).

  • The top vehicle-differentiating option for potential buyers is electronic rollover control and passive rollover protection. Pre-crash sensing and blind-spot warning also make the list of top 10 differentiators.

  • The average respondent was “somewhat likely” to buy a fuel-cell vehicle as his next purchase, if available, even though fuel cells are at least 10-15 years from mass availability. Some 52% of respondents said they were likely to purchase a fuel-cell vehicle next, 40% said an HEV and 31% said a clean diesel.

Harris says only 24% of respondents were familiar with fuel cells, 43% with HEVs and 16% with clean diesels.