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HYBRIDS OFFER fuel economy better than 40 mpg, but apparently only a few buyers care. “Have hybrid cars hit their peak?” asks Automotive News correspondent Mark Rechtin in the June 9, 2014, issue of this authoritative journal.
Rechtin cites an IHS/Polk study giving evidence of softness in hybrid sales. Automakers now offer 47 models of these gasoline/electric vehicles (up from 24 in 2009). Yet, hybrid market share declined from 2009 to 2010, and again from 2013 to 2014.
Have hybrids become passé?
I suggest we consider the multi-faceted appeal of these cars. Different people pay the hybrid premium price for a variety of reasons.
As I noted in “State of the (Hybrid/EV) Union,” http://wp.me/p2ETap-Qz, there are five disparate groups of hybrid buyers, Firsties, Statement Makers, Pencil-Outers, Techies and Greens. The following wonderful illustrations, originally appearing in Road & Track, March 2010, are the work of Jon Dahlstrom (http://goo.gl/8mDpE6).
Hybrids have now been around long enough to lose their attraction to Firsties. Today, these people would be attracted to Hyundai’s Tucson Fuel Cell EV.
It’s a bit late as well for the Statement Makers, those who are what they drive. In particular, many of today’s hybrids share styling with their corporate siblings, and this hardly makes much of a statement.
Techies have been enamored by a hybrid’s all-but-seamless interaction of gasoline and electric propulsion. But there’s technical appeal too in the magic of a fuel cell’s producing electricity from nothing more than the oxygen in the air and the fuel of the future, hydrogen.
Greens have respect for the near-Zero-Emissions-Vehicle performance of a hybrid. But how can near-ZEV compare environmentally with a fuel cell’s emissions of the purest of water?
The fifth group comprises the Pencil-Outers, those focusing on payback. They calculate it’s quicker to justify a hybrid’s higher sticker when gasoline prices soar—and remain there. But, for five years now, U.S. gasoline has hovered around $3.50-$4.00/gal.
Also, with hybrids constituting no more than 2.5 to 3.5 percent of automaker sales, their production has had little economy of scale to reduce the cost premium.
Nor have conventional cars been stationary targets. Downsizing, smaller engines and lightweight structures of advanced materials have diminished the hybrid advantage.
Last, as Lord Paul Drayson noted, technological change follows other ideas of mankind in inevitably evolving in stages. (See http://wp.me/p2ETap-hR.) First comes hype, followed by disillusion, then a shakeout and, finally, ubiquity.
The hype of hybrids came in their first decade, 2000 – 2010. Disillusion accompanied several hybrid models failing to meet their EPA numbers in the real world. Maybe the perceived peak is the start of a shakeout, not all hybrids being created equal.
And, if Reinventing the Automobile by William J. Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird and Lawrence D. Burns has it right, hybrids and their plug-in hybrid siblings have potential for long-term ubiquity in optimized mobility. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014