As we mentioned last month, 10 new hybrid models will be introduced this year, and six of them will come from the Big 3. 2007, it seems, will be the year that Detroit finally gets serious about hybrids. The question many hybrid owners are asking is, what took so long?
One answer may lie in the makeup of cars on the road in the Detroit area. Detroit should be at the forefront of automotive technology innovation: the area is home to the domestic auto industry and hosts events like the North American International Auto Show that showcase future vehicle designs. But as far as hybrids go, the Detroit area is no leader—carbuyers there lag well behind most of the country. In the first 11 months of 2006, residents of metro Detroit bought just over 2,000 hybrids, roughly the same amount that sold in cities half Detroit’s size, such as Raleigh/Durham, NC. In hybrids per capita, Detroit sits at the bottom of the list of major U.S. metropolitan areas, ranking 53rd out of 62 cities. Statewide, the picture is almost as bad: Michigan ranked 44th out of 50 states for hybrid sales per capita in the first eleven months of 2006.
Certainly one reason for Detroit’s low rates of hybrid adoption is the city’s loyalty to domestic auto brands. Many Detroit residents have ties to the Big 3 automakers, and are unlikely to buy any product (hybrid or not) from Toyota or Honda. But even the domestic brand hybrids (hybrid versions of the Ford Escape, Mercury Mariner, and Saturn Vue) aren’t well-supported in Detroit. Last November, residents of the Washington, DC area bought over twice as many hybrids from Ford and GM as residents of the Detroit area did. Among major metropolitan areas where the Ford Escape hybrid is most popular, Detroit isn’t even in the top ten.
Auto executives base their decision to launch a new vehicle on many factors, including market research collected from consumers across the U.S. But the vehicles they see on their morning commutes and in their neighbors’ driveways also influence their perceptions of what is popular and what is not. Six years after the launch of hybrids in the United States, auto executives in Michigan still have almost no exposure to hybrids. In contrast, leaders at Toyota and Honda see five times more hybrids on the roads of their home state, California. Until now, hybrids have been out-of sight, out-of-mind for many Big 3 executives. Sales in 2007 could begin to change their views.