Will Hybrids See a Resurgence?

Toyota has been putting plug-in versions of its fabled Prius hybrid into the hands of the automotive press. Meanwhile, General Motors is close to introducing its Chevrolet Volt, which also has plug-in capabilities. Does this signal that hybrid cars will finally climb from the doldrums that have beset them since the recession closed in?

Well, maybe. Certainly when Toyota brings its plug-in version of the hybrid car to market, it figures to generate some media buzz. And the Volt, while not a hybrid in the traditional sense, has much in common with the plug-in hybrid technology and should gain some serious coverage.  

Times, as they say, have changed. A couple of years back, the world was gripped in an oil-availability crunch and an environmental weave 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 was hailed as not only the answer to the current issues but a harbinger of an inexorable trend toward hybrids. Auto journalists around the world applauded Toyota (and Honda with its first Insight and Civic hybrids) for its pioneering hybrid efforts while chiding companies like General Motors for lagging the field in this virally important area. Many said a major switch to hybrids was inevitable.

But the last few years have been very unkind to hybrids. Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Nissan added hybrid models to their lineups, and Toyota and Honda supplemented their first hybrids with additional hybrid models. Several of those hybrids have already bitten the dust. If you believed the pundits who said that hybrids were going to take over the world, you were probably disappointed. Despite the addition of a variety of Toyota and Lexus models plus hybrid versions of several Ford Motor Co. vehicles, the Prius remains the predominant plug-in hybrid model, and its sales have suffered recently in the face of a deepening recession and relatively low fuel prices. Honda’s second Insight has largely laid an egg.

Fuel prices are creeping up again, and although interest in and sales of hybrids increase in correlation with fuel price run-ups, hybrids are still a long way from becoming a dominant technology. Despite the fact they’ve been around for years now, they’re still a long way from even reaching mainstream status.

So will the addition of the plug-in feature enable hybrids to become a dominant car type? The answer to that question seems like a firm no. Even with the potential development of much less expensive batteries, a plug-in hybrid drive system as we know it still involves more components than a conventionally powered car, and more components equal more cost -- thousands of dollars of more cost.

The ball, therefore, lands right in the vehicle marketers’ court. Can they convince new-car buyers that the benefits of plug-in hybrids -- significantly increased fuel economy, lower emissions, decreased use of fossil fuels and the ability to drive in electric-only mode for at least some distance -- are worth the additional cost that seems inevitable with the technology? It’s hard to believe that the answer will be yes, despite what is likely to be laudatory media coverage.