Hybrids have been widely available for almost 10 years and are now offered by many different car manufacturers. Although there is so much selection, the Toyota Prius still dominates the market. According to the Department of Energy, the Prius comprised 50.8 percent of hybrids sold in 2008. By comparison, the best selling conventional vehicle (Ford F-150) comprised less than 4 percent of conventional vehicle sales.
Toyota will begin selling its plug-in version of the Prius by the end the year. As with hybrids, many other car manufacturers will develop competitors of the Prius. Although plug-in vehicles are a new frontier, the beginning of the plug-in experience already resembles that of the hybrid experience. Are we stuck in Prius-toric times?
To help answer this question, I use a really great plug-in vehicle tracker that I found at PlugInAmerica.com. This tracker is a frequently updated list of plug-in cars and trucks that will be coming out in the next few years. The plug-in Prius is one of 49 vehicles that are currently on the list. Like an ESPN sports analyst, I will separate the contenders from the pretenders to determine which vehicles, if any, will legitimately challenge the plug-in Prius in the near future.
Fully electric vehicles are the first vehicles that I take off the list. Market research has shown that consumers are not comfortable with waving goodbye to the internal combustion engine quite yet. Until charging infrastructure is ubiquitous, lack of vehicle range will always be the number one concern in the minds of consumers. Since infrastructure takes many years to build, the concern over lack of vehicle range will not be appeased soon enough for fully electric vehicles to gain a substantial market share in the near future. This substantially reduces the number of vehicles on the list from 49 to 19.
To be a serious contender for substantial market share in the near future, the vehicle needs to be introduced by 2012. If a vehicle is introduced in 2013, for example, it will only be available in select areas by 2014 and will not be available to the mass market until 2015. This filters out the 4 Chrysler plug-in hybrids and one other.
Another issue with availability is whether the vehicle will be sold in the United States. The Opel plug-in hybrid will only be available in Europe, so it is also taken off the list for lack of availability.
As the 10-year experience with hybrids has shown, the luxury brands have not been successful with alternative vehicles. Consumers already have to pay a large price premium for the battery and plug-in capability, so luxury plug-in hybrids will not be priced well enough to attract enough consumers in the mass market. This takes the Cadillac, Volvo, Mercedes and Audi PHEVs off the list.
The Fisker Karma ($87,900) and the Mindset ($70,000) are also taken off the list because of price. A few Silicon Valley venture capitalists may be driving one of these, but not enough to capture substantial market share.
Although SUVs may eventually be popular plug-in hybrids, it does not seem like the technology will be developed soon enough for SUVs to be serious contenders. These vehicles will likely have a low all-electric range and cost a lot. This removes the Ford Escape and Saturn Vue from the list.
The Final Contenders
Out of the list of 49 electric vehicles, there are 5 left:
- Toyota Prius
- Chevy Volt (GM)
- Volkswagen Golf
- Hyundai Blue-Will
- BYD Auto F3DM
Toyota, GM and Volkswagen are the three largest vehicle manufacturers in the world. Hyundai is number 8. But who is BYD Auto?
BYD Auto is a Chinese company that wants to “Build Your Dreams”. It started selling plug-in hybrids to Chinese government vehicle fleets in December 2008. Its parent company is the second largest manufacturer of cell phone batteries in the world. It has applied that expertise to plug-in hybrid batteries. To add more legitimacy to the company, Warren Buffet recently bought a 10 percent stake.
Although BYD seems legitimate, I just don’t see a substantial portion of Americans in the near future going around saying, “Check out my BYD F3DM.” Excuse me? Is that your car or your license plate number?
Are we stuck in Prius-toric times?
As for the rest of the contenders, the Volkswagen Golf and Hyundai Blue-Will are still in the concept stage. It is hard to tell what is going to happen with these two vehicles. They don’t have a manufacturer’s webpage and there hasn’t been too many news stories about them. So for now I am going to take them off the contenders list, but promise to keep readers posted.
That leaves us with the plug-in Prius and the Chevy Volt. The two largest vehicle manufacturers in the world going head-to-head in a fight for plug-in vehicle market share supremacy. They are taking vastly different approaches. GM is coming out aggressively, boasting about the Volt’s 230 MPG rating. Toyota is staying quiet, saying that battery technology may not be developed enough.
Toyota knows that they can stay quiet because the Prius already has such a great brand name. All they have to do is say, “It’s just like a Prius, but with a plug,” and it will sell. The GM brand has taken a beating lately with the government bailout and talk of its inability to adapt to changing consumer needs. The Chevy Volt is not going to change that image overnight. It’s ironic that with all this talk of change in the automotive industry, we are still stuck in Prius-toric times.