Hybrids: Stuck in a Rut?

There was a time a couple of years back when the world was gripped in an oil availability crunch and an environmental wave of emotion that vaulted hybrids to the top of the list as a gotta-have-it technology. Gasoline prices had climbed to then-unheard-of levels, and the Toyota Prius -- one of the first hybrids available and the most iconic -- was hailed as not only the answer to the issues of the time but a harbinger of an inexorable trend toward hybrids. Auto journalists around the world applauded Toyota and Honda for their pioneering hybrid efforts while chiding companies like General Motors for lagging the field in this virally important area. Many were convinced that a major switch to hybrids was inevitable.

It just hasn’t happened. Ford Motor Company, General Motors and Nissan have added hybrid models to their lineups, while Toyota and Honda supplemented their first hybrids with additional hybrid models. Chrysler now has a couple of hybrids waiting in the wings, ready for imminent introduction to the marketplace. But if you believed the pundits who said that hybrids were going to take over the world, you were disappointed. Despite the addition of a variety of Toyota and Lexus models, plus hybrid versions of various Saturn, Chevrolet, Mercury, GMC and Nissan models, the Prius still represents about 50 percent of all hybrids sold in the United States, while the rest of the models scrap among themselves for the other 50 percent. In addition, Honda, the company that introduced the first U.S.-available hybrid (the Insight), pulled the plug on that tiny car and additionally on the hybrid version of the Accord. For midsize and larger cars like Accord, Honda seems to feel that clean diesel is a better long-term choice.

You would guess that this era of unprecedented gasoline prices would present an unprecedented opportunity for hybrids to gain the prominence that many predicted for them. But though interest in and sales of hybrids have increased in correlation with the fuel price run-up, hybrids are still a long way from becoming a dominant technology. In fact, one could make the case that they are still a long way from becoming a mainstream technology. For all the media coverage around hybrids, for all the heat they have generated in the marketplace, hybrids are still a niche.

So can hybrids become the dominant vehicle type, or is the technology essentially a flash in the pan? The answer to that question hinges on two things: Can vehicle manufacturers find ways to build hybrid vehicles for virtually the same cost as building conventional vehicles? And/Or can vehicle manufacturers persuade new-vehicle buyers that hybrids are worth the premium they must pay for them?

The answer to the first question seems like a firm no. Even with the potential development of much less expensive batteries, a hybrid drive system as we know it still involves more components that a conventionally powered vehicle, and more components equal more cost. The touted upcoming low-cost hybrid from Honda might change that paradigm, but so far it seems like a given. So the ball lands right in the vehicle marketers’ court. Can they convince new-vehicle buyers that the benefits of hybrids -- significantly increased fuel economy, lower emissions, less use of fossil fuels -- are worth the additional cost that seems inevitable with hybrid technology? To answer that question, we’ll have to wait and see.