Hybrids As Message

Sometimes we zoom down the road without knowing exactly where we are going. Then, it’s time to stop and ask for directions. When that happens on our drive to sustainable transportation, we give a call to John DeCicco, senior fellow at Environmental Defense.

Question

Hybrid gas-electric cars may not be the silver bullet solution to our climate change and oil dependency problems. Nonetheless, doesn’t every hybrid purchase send a critical message to the auto industry that there’s a significant market of consumers willing to pay for greater fuel efficiency?

John’s Reply

Buying a hybrid certainly does make a statement about the value of superior fuel efficiency. Consumers’ motives are varied, of course, but most hybrid buyers feel that higher fuel economy and better environmental performance are top priorities. Expressing a market demand for higher fuel economy is certainly necessary, since the auto industry still seems to be lagging the public in its view on the importance of efficiency. A survey by the management consultancy Capgemini, for example, found that consumers rank fuel economy and environmental factors higher than do automakers and dealers.

However, buying a hybrid isn’t the only way to make such a statement, and consumers shouldn’t feel that buying a hybrid is the best way to express concern for fuel economy and the issues behind it, such as global warming or energy security. A much broader message is crucially important. Consumers who care about these issues can seek any and all opportunities to telegraph that they want more fuel-efficient vehicles. If more and more car buyers resolve to purchase the most efficient vehicle that meets their needs and fits their budget—in all segments and prices ranges, new and used—that’s what will really begin to get through to the industry that it needs to make higher fuel economy a design priority throughout its product lines.

We’re now starting to see hybrids optimized as much or more for added power performance as they are for fuel economy. Like most other powertrain technologies, hybrid drive can be used for multiple purposes. Thus, it’s consumer prioritization of fuel economy itself that matters most in the long run, much more than hybrids or any other particular technology. So, sticking with the plenty powerful six instead of an excessive eight when it comes to choice of engine; opting for midsize rather than massive in your next lifestyle vehicle; and forgoing four-wheel drive in your suburban street machine: it’s customer choices like these—along with choosing hybrids when they fit the bill—that will create an even more forceful message to Motown that fuel economy matters.

Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, John DeCicco is a Ph.D. mechanical engineer who specializes in automotive strategies for Environmental Defense, where he evaluates vehicle technologies and helps develop market-based policies for addressing the car-climate challenge. John was the original creator of ACEEE’s Green Book, which HybridCars.com references for the its Gas Mileage Impact Calculator and lists of the "greenest" and "meanest" vehicles, and he has published widely-cited technical studies on automotive energy and climate issues.