Hybrid cars are very popular in California, but they still make up a tiny percent of vehicles. How is that rate of adoption doubled or tripled in the next decade?


Ohh soooo LA

So far this summer, I’ve driven through about 10 states, happily noticing many hybrid cars along the way, even in so-called ‘red states’. Whether it’s a green statement, or a statement against foreign oil, hybrid fans are everywhere.

Of course, in LA there are moments when, judging by all the hybrids, one might believe that real automotive change has already happened, but the facts simply don’t support such a perception.

Perceptual reality

Last night my niece was watching Legally Blond, and as I watched a few minutes of the movie, I thought about how much such shows shape the perceptions many people have of Angelenos. ‘Like, hey dude. Let’s have some sushi and buy some Versace for Freddy the chihuahua.’

But that’s oh so West LA.

On the other hand, I was at party Saturday night in Glassel Park, an East LA neighborhood, (although it’s not really East LA), where one of my friends was showing off his new truck, a giant Ford F250.

“Why such a big truck,” someone asked?

“I just like big trucks.”

“What about gas prices,” another asked?

“I don’t care,” he responded. “I’ll worry about that when it becomes a problem.”

Certainly, there are times, especially in some LA neighborhoods, when it seems like everyone in LA drives a hybrid, but if you really stop and look around, hybrids are everywhere, but still only in small percentages overall. BMWs, for instance, are still much more common. Similarly, in the parking lot of the party I attended Saturday, where a few hundred guests showed up, I only noticed one hybrid. Mine.

Yet, in the next decade, hybrid adoption has been predicted to increase from less than 3 percent today, to over 20 percent in 2020. How? Why?

It seems most automakers can easily achieve upcoming CAFE regulations without adding much new hybrid technology, especially when methodologies for determining fuel economy are so skewed towards highway fuel economy. Porsche, the most impacted automaker in terms of CAFE for example, believes that just 15 percent hybrid is enough to make their gas-guzzling fleet achieve CAFE requirements.

So, what forces 20 or even 25 percent? New regulations? Much higher gas prices? Lithium? All of the above?

Many automakers, for instance, don’t seem to agree with such bullish hybrid forecasts. Instead of a real effort into hybrids, Nissan for instance, seems more content with trying to achieve 10 percent EV penetration, while Chrysler seems focused on conventional, although Euro-styled, compact and micro-cars. Similarly, GM’s continued focus on mild hybrids seems just as hybrid-doubtful, and even after a decade of hybrid sales, Honda seems uncertain if not totally confused.

Of course, hot kid on the block, Hyundai is more in line with hybrid-bullish Toyota and Ford.

Yet, if automakers, powertrain forecasters, battery analysts, energy hawks and policy-makers are studying the same data, why are the forecasts and favored technologies still so diverse?

It seems numerous breakthroughs across many different technologies could force automakers to almost instantly make major changes to their lineups and to their long term plans. Calling Heisenberg!

Inevitably, great change is coming, possibly even sooner than expected. That change, however, probably won’t end up looking anything like being predicted today. Consequently, if there is a skill that seems essential for automakers heading into the future, it seems to be nimbleness. Unfortunately, that skill is lacking throughout the entire auto industry.

Until such breakthroughs, marketing – perception – seems to be automakers’ favored technology.

As for me, I’m heading out for some sushi and then to Rodeo Drive. My dog needs a new collar.