Given recent developments in the Arab world, I wish I could store several barrels of oil in my backyard and be insured against any future political turmoil in various regions of the world. But I simply do not have that much money.
Spiraling oil prices give me the jitters because the cost of the stuff affects me in so many ways. This makes me wonder why a better solution, one that lies in hybrid cars, has still not made more of a meaningful impact on the U.S. transportation market.
Now that the days of high-priced oil are back on the brain, I wonder how many more people are again considering this legitimate and increasingly cost-effective solution.
Reshaping the demand curve
If we are increasingly able to do away with oil, I and others like me become less sensitive to the wild price swings we've experienced in the past five years. The question remains, however: Is the supply side ready with the appropriate product? Are hybrids matching up to the performance of purely petroleum-based cars? Can they provide the same passenger comfort? Unfortunately, these are the questions that matter when it comes to solving a problem of far greater significance.
Are the automobile companies ready to pre-empt the market?
Let's see how the industry stacks up by maker:
Toward the beginning of the last decade, Toyota (NYSE: TM ) was first off the blocks with a new breed of cars -- hybrid electric cars. Today, the company says it expects to realize its goal of 1 million annual global hybrid sales by the end of this year. The Japanese automaker currently sells more than 10 hybrids, including dedicated models such as the Prius and Lexus HS 250h. And the Prius still dominates the hybrid market.
Honda's (NYSE: HMC ) Insight, however, has yet to see much success. As of October 2010, the company had sold 1,965 units of the hybrid -- a distant second to Prius which sold 11,731 units during the month.
Among the American auto manufacturers, Ford (NYSE: F ) has developed some hybrid cars such as the Ford Fusion and Ford Escape SUV, which are not doing too badly in the market. In fact, the Ford Fusion hybrid is the third largest selling hybrid in the U.S.
But the future is unlikely to be kind to the hybrid. Fully electric cars are a nascent market that is just now being tapped. With a lot of political pressure coming down on automakers to provide an assortment of legitimate all-electric vehicles, the reality may be coming down the pike sooner than anyone thinks.
President Barack Obama has called for a million electric vehicles on American roads by 2015. The Chevy Volt (product of parent company General Motors (NYSE: GM ) ) and the Nissan Leaf are pretty much the only names to watch here for now, but surely when discussing numbers of this scale, newer, bolder entrants are sure to follow.
It will be interesting to see how consumers take to the concept of 100% electric cars. These cars are usually expensive to own and, therefore, it's not absurd to expect some kind of significant tax incentive credit from the government to purchase one, especially if the goal of 1 million electric cars by 2015 is to be achieved.
How popular are these hybrid cars?
The latest sales figures are not so great. Hybrid car sales fell for the third consecutive year, dropping nearly 6% in a year when overall vehicle sales jumped by 11 %. Low gas prices and questions about the reliability of hybrid technology affected the sales of hybrids in 2010. But perhaps more significant was the fact that sales dropped so hard during the heat of this recession, which may be testament to the fact that consumers still feel as if hybrid technology is more of a luxury good than a realistic answer to ever-rising energy prices.
People still believe that all-gas cars are superior for a variety of reasons. It's just that unpredictable oil prices force consumers to give the hybrids some serious consideration. In December 2010, when oil prices rose by 30 %, hybrid sales jumped by 36% compared to November 2010.
It's clear that the onus is on the car manufacturers to make hybrids that deliver similar performance to their gas-powered counterparts. Backed by a decade of research, Toyota, of course, is best placed to overcome performance issues. Car manufacturers like General Motors, Daimler, and Volkswagen AG have some catching up to do.
Consumers value performance and rightly so. Stereotypically speaking, hybrid cars demand that an owner sacrifice high performance for efficiency. But that's likely to change over time as the technology becomes more sophisticated. Plus, the majority of the U.S. population is moving to urban areas, which are getting congested. Gradually, performance will simply have to take a back seat to fuel efficiency and even space efficiency. This is yet another reason to believe that these cars are the future of the American road.
Hybrid car sales stand at just 2.37% of total sales in the United States. But I sense an explosive growth in demand is sitting in the cards.
Have we managed to beat the oil at least as far as restricting our fuel bills goes?
For the time being, it's prudent to watch how the demand and supply situation in this industry niche pans out, especially in light of political conflict in the Middle East and Africa. As costs of fuel increase and the supply of hybrid and electric technology increases in sophistication and decreases in price, I feel as if we're standing at the very precipice of an absolute revolution in the makeup of the American highway.
So here's a toast not to the car manufacturers but to "us," the people. We may not necessarily be able to predict oil price movement (I wonder who can do that accurately), but at least we will have a choice to dodge some crude shocks.
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