October 2007 Looking Ahead

The tidal wave of green car marketing continues unabated, leaving today’s car shoppers with a sense that breakthrough technologies—such as plug-in hybrids or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles—are right around the corner. Meanwhile, new hybrid releases fail to deliver revolution or evolution.

The 2008 Highlander Hybrid is bigger and heavier than the previous model—and no more fuel efficient or speedy. The just-released Chevy Malibu Hybrid carries a $1,800 premium over the conventional model, but provides a negligible gain in fuel efficiency of two mpg in the city and highway. And the next hybrid release, the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid, is the very definition of cognitive dissonance.

Announcements about new dedicated hybrid models, electric drives and biofuel power make a promise that apparently will not be honored for at least two or three years. Press releases about these exciting new hybrid and diesel models, mostly coming out of the major auto shows, almost invariably forecast production beginning at "the end of the decade."

In the meantime, gas-electric vehicles actually arriving to dealership showrooms follow hybrid economics, circa 2003—namely, "hybrids don’t pay for themselves and don’t make sense." It doesn’t help that prestigious news organizations, like the Wall Street Journal, perpetuate the bean-counters approach to hybrids. The Oct. 29, 2007 WSJ story, "The Economics of Hybrids," computes a breakeven period for the Toyota Prius at nearly 18 years. Some journalists still don’t understand that hybrids are about much more than just dollars and cents.

Until new hybrid offerings which capture the zeitgeist—worry about the environment and energy security, combined with the society’s love of high-tech gadgets—the one or two most popular and fuel efficient hybrids will slowly and steadily push the hybrid market ahead. More dramatic increases in hybrid sales numbers are unlikely until "the end of the decade."