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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Hybrids: The Cars Of The Future That Nobody's Buying

Air Date: Week of

Toyota's Prius is the best selling hybrid in the US, accounting for about half of all hybrid car sales in the past decade. (Wikipedia Commons)

This year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit featured many hybrid cars, despite lackluster sales. As public policies shift toward higher standards, these green cars aren’t going anywhere, but they’re not edging out the internal combustion engine, either. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with John O’Dell, editor for Green Cars and Fuel Efficiency at Edmunds.com.


GELLERMAN: Motor-heads and gearbox gurus got to kick the tires and look under the hoods of hundreds of cars in Detroit at the North American International Auto Show.
And this year, after a dismal spell when U.S. car companies nearly skidded into oblivion, automakers have something to cheer about: sales are up.

At this year’s show, new hybrids of all sizes and styles took center stage which is interesting because since they first hit the road about a decade ago, only about two million hybrids have been sold in the United States, just two and a half percent of total car sales. And John O'Dell, senior editor of Green Cars and Fuel Efficiency at Edmunds.com says half of the hybrids sold here are Toyota Priuses.

O’DELL: Prius has become synonymous in this country with hybrid. A lot of people look at that and go, ‘wow.’ It is low, the market penetration, but it’s only been the last three to four years that there’s been, that anybody other than Toyota and Honda have come to the market with hybrids.

But the big roadblock is they cost more money than the non-hybrid versions. There’s not a lot of savings when fuel is relatively inexpensive and when you can buy conventional engine vehicles that give you 35, 40 miles per gallon. You know, if you’re having to pay four to six thousand more for some of these hybrids- you could pump a lot of gasoline at $3.80 a gallon, or $3.50 a gallon- for 4,000 dollars.

GELLERMAN: I’m wondering, John, that since these auto companies are producing so many hybrid models, do they know something that the average consumer doesn’t because the sales figures have been so dismal?

O’DELL: I think what they know is that public policy is continuing to require better and better overall or average fleet improvements in fuel economy. And the most reasonable way economically that the auto makers see that they can do this is to continue improving the internal combustion engine and then, even if they don’t sell in huge volume, you provide the hybrid models that have a bigger jump than is required. And when you start averaging, they go a long way towards helping, you know, pull up the averages from the bulk of your fleet, which will continue to be internal combustion engines of some sort or another.

GELLERMAN: But the public doesn’t seem to be receptive to these cars.

O’DELL: Well, it’s hard to be receptive to something. We’re in a society that has used the automobile for about 100 years. We traded up from horses and we found very quickly that the automobile gave us a lot of additional utility, a lot of additional functionality, and the price differential was worth it. Now we’re asking people to trade a vehicle that works, a power plant that works and a fuel that works for new stuff that comes with a lot of baggage. There aren’t very many fueling station for any alternative fuel, the vehicles tend to cost more, and, at best, they don't do anything more for you, utility-wise, than a gasoline vehicle or a diesel vehicle, and at worst they do less for you.


O’DELL: (Continues talking)

GELLERMAN: But, John, I don’t think you’d make a great cars salesman for green cars!

John O’Dell is Senior Editor for Green Cars and Fuel Efficiency at Edmunds.com. (Photo: Edmunds.com)

O’DELL: (Laughs.) Well, I’d love to be a green cars salesman. I have a Nissan Leaf in my garage. I have a natural gas Honda in my garage, and those are personal vehicles, not fleet vehicles. I bought them and paid for them myself. I think there’s a lot of value in having them. I, personally, am saving money driving them and not having to go to the gas stations. There are natural gas stations in a lot of places. If you want to talk about savings, I pump it at home with a home unit and I pay the equivalent of about $1.70 a gallon for fuel.

GELLERMAN: So, John, are you driving the future? Is your natural gas vehicle what we can expect? I noticed you’ve been appointed to the National Research Council’s committee on transitions to alternative vehicles and fuels. Is that natural gas?

O’DELL: Ah, no. Natural gas will be one of the things. There’s a lot of work being done, quietly now- it was noisier a little while ago- on what they call drop-in biofuels – liquid replacements for gasoline – so that you could use the same distribution system, you can use the same kinds of cars, with the same kinds of fuel tanks, and you’re not asking people and society to make a quantum change.

GELLERMAN: But biofuels are still not ready for prime time. They’re not pumping a lot because they’re not making a lot of it.

O’DELL: They’re not making a lot, and the only thing they make is corn-based ethanol in any great volume. And, it’s quite possible to have effectively a zero-tail pipe emission in an internal combustion engine if you have the right fuel for it. And so the engine itself, or that technology, should not be demonized because, right now, we’re burning petroleum and carbon-based fuels, because it is possible to run them on other things and there are a lot of smart people working on other things to run them on.

GELLERMAN: John O'Dell is senior editor of Green Cars and Fuel Efficiency at Edmunds.com.



FAQ: New Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards

CNNMoney: Lots of hybrids, few buyers


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