Americans have been slow to adopt electric and hybrid vehicles. However, recent numbers show that the market may finally be on the rise. Most agree that rising gas prices are at least part of the reason for the increase.
An ‘environmental imperative’
Earlier this month, U.S. energy secretary Steven Chu said he was “unconcerned” about the slowness of American motorists to turn to alternative power-source vehicles. He estimated it took 25 years for the American public to move on from the horse and buggy to the automobile, and it only did so completely when motivated by an “environmental imperative.” In that case, it was the need to reduce the levels of horse manure on city streets.
Reluctant hybrid/EV sales finally rise
Chu’s words look prophetic just a few weeks later. According to the Troy, Mich.-based consulting firm LMC Automotive, March auto sales were at their highest since May of 2008. And this month, those increased sales are also being noticed for alternative power vehicles.
Automotive News says that the sales of EVs and hybrids in the U.S. have risen by 44 percent during the first quarter of 2012. There were 113,457 EV and hybrid vehicles sold in the U.S. in March. That is double the amount sold in January.
Hybrids amounted for the bulk of March’s alternative-vehicle sales: 106,207 hybrids over 7,250 electric cars.
Sales were way up for Chevrolet’s EV Volt, which sold more than 2,000 units in the U.S. in March. Earlier this year, sales were so poor on the Volt that production was suspended for five weeks. Those assembly lines restarted on Monday.
Could Chu’s modern-day “environmental imperative” finally have come in the form of escalating gas prices? Perhaps at least partially so. Fuel prices have risen by 19 percent since the beginning of 2012. Last week, the average price nationally was $3.87 a gallon.
Acording to Gary Uftring, who runs several auto dealerships in central Illinois:
“Fuel prices drive people to look at alternatives. We sold three Volts last month. In fact, we only have one left in stock.”
New models attract more buyers
However, rising gas prices are not the total answer to the rise in sales. Gas price spikes in 2008 and 2011 did not to spur the sales of alternative vehicles.
According to Automotive news, another factor affecting the sales increase is that new models are giving motorists features they have not been able to find in previous hybrid and EV models. The website cites the hybrid wagon — such as Volkswagen’s Golf Twin Drive or Volvo’s V60 — as an example of a class of hybrids not available until recently.
Not a political move
Uftring said some American consumers have the misconception that the Chevy Volt is a White House push resulting from the automotive industry bailout. But he says the Volt was in development long before the Obama administration.
EVs were, in fact, quite common in the industry’s infancy. According to “Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History” by Curtis and Judy Anderson, there were 25,000 consumer-owned electric cars on the roads in 1915.
These cars were initially popular with women, according to the Andersons, because cranking was not required to start the engine. The innovation of the electric starter for gasoline engines, however, put the more powerful gasoline engines back in the popular forefront.