- John Coletta
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Are Gas-Sipping Cars Leaving Hybrids in the Dust?
When Cadillac is staking its comeback on a compact car that boasts fuel economy approaching 40 mpg, what does it mean for hybrid and electric vehicles? Cadillac’s ATS sedan is one example of how carmakers at the Detroit Auto Show are re-emphasizing small, powerful models with more fuel-efficient engines such as sport-utility vehicles; even, please note that we are talking gas here, hybrids are taking a back seat. Additionally, General Motors’ luxury brand says that the ATS will have a turbo-charged four-cylinder 270-horsepower engine that offers impressive fuel economy. Meanwhile, Ford is dropping plans for a hybrid version of its popular Escape SUV.
Although recent auto shows have been stocked with gas-electric hybrids and SUVs, slow hybrid sales have brought a dose of reality. Carmakers realize they can give buyers what they want and avoid the expense of electric motors and batteries by making cars smaller and getting significantly improved fuel economy from traditional gas engines.
“The advantages of hybrids are getting harder to justify,” said Scott Corwin, a vice president with consulting firm Booz & Co. “It’s the cost differential. Consumers are rational and they understand the cost of ownership.” Hybrid sales slowed in 2011 to just 2.2 percent of auto sales, down from 2.4 percent in 2010, according to researcher LMC Automotive.
Mike Jackson, CEO of Fort Lauderdale, FL-based auto retail chain AutoNation Inc., said that approximately 75 percent of his customers want to talk about hybrids, although they constitute only 2.5 percent of his sales. “What happens from the 75 percent consideration to the 2.5 percent commitment?” Jackson said. “They look at the price premium for the technology, which is already subsidized and discounted, and say “the payback period is too long; not for me. It’s a back-of-the envelope conversation on the part of the American consumer.”
After a decade of hybrids and oil hovering near $100 a barrel, consumers still aren’t ready to pay the premium for hybrid models, said Reid Bigland, president of Chrysler Group LLC’s Dodge brand. “The delta you get in fuel-economy lift with a hybrid is continuing to shrink because of the efficiencies with the internal combustion engine” through direct engine, turbochargers and advanced transmissions, Bigland said. “The pure economics are a tough case.”
The Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid lures people into the showroom, said Chris Perry, Chevrolet’s vice president of U.S. marketing. With fewer than 8,000 sales last year, consumers often went to a Chevy dealer to look at the Volt and settled on something else less pricey.
Despite slower-than-anticipated sales, the Obama administration has defended tax incentives for electric vehicles. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that the program has worked, “It’s real money and people have utilized it.”
The administration is advocating aggressive fuel efficiency mandates for the U.S. fleet to decrease oil dependence, particularly through more electrical vehicles. President Barack Obama would like to see one million electric vehicles on the roads three years from now, a goal that industry insiders say is too optimistic. The industry is simultaneously investing in battery technology while making more affordable gains through improvements in conventional engine and transmission systems. Administration officials are fighting Congressional and consumer skepticism about the wisdom of the $7,500 tax credit that mainly has benefited more well-heeled buyers, who experts say would have been able to purchase the technology without it.
Jeremy Anwyl, CEO of online consumer research group Edmunds.com, said plug-ins are most popular on the West and East coasts with “early adopters,” or educated consumers passionate about using less gasoline. “For these folks, affordability is not the issue,” Anwyl said.
Automakers have little choice but to promote more hybrids as they prepare for fuel-efficiency requirements that will require significant increases by 2020. However, advances such as Ford’s EcoBoost technology have raised mileage for gas-powered engines —the new Fusion midsize sedan can get 37 miles to the gallon — though bigger gains are still needed.
That’s why many are bullish on alternative engines. “Internal combustion can’t get all the way there, so you need an alternative,” said Russell Hensley, a partner with the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. “The only alternative we have at the moment is electrification.” McKinsey listed “uncertainty around future adoption of hybrid/electric powertrain technology” as one of several challenges facing automakers in coming years. According to McKinsey, hybrids could account for up 25 percent of sales by 2020, with battery-powered cars making up five percent. It confirmed that internal-combustion engines would dominate the industry through at least 2030.
Over at the Rocky Mountain Institute, Randy Essex and Ben Holland point out that when gas-electric hybrids first rolled out in 2000, the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius had sales of just 9,350. Those figures looked anemic at the time, too. But in the ensuing years, the technology caught on and more than two million hybrids have been sold in the United States. If that’s any prologue, it could bode well for future plug-ins.
“But is this comparison apt? On the one hand, the new generation of electric vehicles enjoy a few advantages that Priuses didn’t. Gasoline prices sat below $2 per gallon back in 2000, considerably lower than today. What’s more, the latest round of fuel-economy standards, under which carmakers have to get their fleet averages up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, should give the big auto companies incentive to roll out more plug-in vehicles in the coming years. But then again, today’s electric cars also face special hurdles that the old hybrids didn’t. For one, there’s ‘range anxiety,’ in which would-be buyers of electric cars sometimes fret that their batteries will run out of juice and leave them stranded.”