Despite tepid demand, automakers rushing hybrids to market

Living on Earth

Hybrid cars have been presented as the environmentally friendly car of today.

But, it turns out, not many people are actually buying them. At this year’s North American International Auto Show all manner of hybrids were on display. But only 2 million have been sold since they first hit the roads a decade ago, barely 200,000 a year — 2.5 percent of all sales.

John O’Dell, senior editor of Green Cars and Fuel Efficiency at Edmunds.com, said the largest portion of those sales, about half, were of the popular Toyota Prius.

“Prius has become synonymous in this country with hybrid. A lot of people look at that and go, ‘Wow.’” O’Dell said. “It is low, the market penetration, but it’s only been the last three to four years that there’s been, that anybody other than Toyota and Honda have come to the market with hybrids.”

The biggest barrier to greater adoption of hybrids is cost, O’Dell said. With price tags $6,000 and $8,000 higher, even with gas at $3.50 a gallon, it takes a lot of savings to make up that difference. And it’s particularly so as convention vehicles get ever-better gas mileage.

And yet hybrid models continue to be rolled out by the big automakers.

“Public policy is continuing to require better and better overall or average fleet improvements in fuel economy,” O’Dell said. “The most reasonable way economically that the auto makers see that they can do this is to continue improving the internal combustion engine and then … you provide the hybrid models that have a bigger jump than is required.

“They go a long way towards helping, you know, pull up the averages from the bulk of your fleet.”

O’Dell, who owns a Nissan Leaf and a natural gas-powered Honda, said that part of the resistance to picking up alternative fuel vehicles or hybrids is that cars have been around for 100 years and these new models don’t do anything tangible differently enough to make them a must-buy for most drivers.

Long-term, though, the situation will continue to evolve, though O’Dell isn’t convinced any one technology or fuel will be the only player in the market, the way gasoline was. Natural gas might play a role, as well as biofuels which, with the right internal-combustion engine, he said, can be burned to produce almost zero emissions.

“The engine itself, or that technology, should not be demonized because, right now, we’re burning petroleum and carbon-based fuels, because it is possible to run them on other things and there are a lot of smart people working on other things to run them on,” O’Dell said.

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