Earthquake Threatens Hybrid Car Rebound
In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake and tsunami that have crippled Japanese industry in recent days, carmakers around the world face possible shortages of key auto parts. Supplies of high-tech components like semiconductors, computer systems, and hybrid vehicle batteries have been most affected by the disruption. Still the center of the international hybrid market and manufacturing base, Japan produces not only the most popular gas-electric vehicles in the world, but also many of the battery packs and other components that go into competing international hybrids.
For hybrid carmakers, the supply disruption couldn’t come at a worse time. After a 2008 global economic downturn both softened sales across the industry and brought lower gas prices, hybrids have only now begun to make a comeback with consumers—due to a stabilizing economy and a recent spike in oil prices.
According to a survey by Automotive News, 74 percent of responding car dealers said their customers’ recent shopping habits had been affected by rising gas prices with 51 percent saying that buyers had begun favoring better fuel efficiency across all vehicle segments.
Toyota and Honda Plants Remain Inactive, But Seem to Have Escaped Serious Damage
Of the top ten hybrid models in the United States right now, seven are produced by Japanese carmakers. The others rely on parts imported from the country. The Toyota Prius has dominated the market since its inception—typically beating U.S. sales of all of its challengers combined—so the first question for hybrid watchers is whether or not waiting lists will return to 2008 levels.
The good news is that Toyota’s factories seem to have all escaped major structural damage and should be capable of going back online soon. Toyota’s nickel metal hydride battery supplier, Primearth EV Energy, is now also reported to be okay despite early reports that had its Miyagi factory sustaining major damage. The carmaker says it will provide an update today about possible timelines for reopening its domestic facilities.
Honda, which is mourning the loss of an employee due to the collapse of a wall at one of its R&D facilities, announced that most of its plants will remained closed until March 20. One of the affected factories is the Suzuka plant, where the carmaker assembles its Honda Insight, Honda Civic Hybrid, and Honda CR-Z hybrid models. That plant was reportedly reopened briefly before Honda included it on the list of idled plants, so there’s a strong that chance the damage there could be minor.
Other Hybrid Makers Are Also Affected
One of the more widely used photos in coverage surrounding the earthquake features roughly 1,300 Infiniti vehicles destroyed by tsunami while awaiting shipment to the United States at the port of Hitachi. Included in those vehicles was the new Infiniti M35h, a hybrid version of which was scheduled to launch in North America this spring. Infiniti hasn’t yet released any information about whether the M hybrid was among the cars in the shipment, but parent company Nissan has temporarily closed at least six of its facilities and says delays in getting out several Infiniti models should be expected. Will the release date of the M hybrid be pushed back as a result of the earthquake? The Nissan Altima Hybrid, sold in eight states, is produced in Nissan’s Smyrna, Tenn. plant.
The earthquake has also disrupted production of the all-electric Nissan LEAF, although the long-term effects are still unknown.
Ford says it’s also worried about a threat to its hybrid lineup, which includes three of the more popular gas-electric models in the United States: the Fusion Hybrid, Escape Hybrid, and simply weren’t enough to go around.