But somehow, telling most Americans they could be saving more on gas or getting tax deductions is like telling them they could be eating healthier and exercising more. They know they could be, but they sure as heck ain't doing it. In a recent, totally unscientific poll of readers who receive our Weekend Hit List newsletter, just 3 percent said they own a hybrid, nearly 47 percent said they'd be interested in getting one, and 50 percent said they have no plans to own one anytime soon. Despite the thousands of news stories about hybrids "gaining in popularity" due to the cost of all our "gas-guzzling behemoths," hybrid cars made up just 80,000 of the 17 million cars sold in the United States last year--less than 1 percent. And while more automakers are jumping on the hybrid bandwagon, the cars are still far from mass acceptance. Why? They're scary new tech. In fact, those numbers seem to me to be right in line with early adopter statistics, and some recent developments indicate that those early adopters could be in for some nasty surprises.
My car "crashed"
A couple of high-profile hybrid troubles surfaced this week. First, Toyota said it's investigating a few reports of Priuses that literally shut down after reaching highway speeds. The cars just stalled or stopped, and Toyota says it's due to a software glitch--just the kind of scary scenario people often cite when they're talking about why they wouldn't buy a hybrid. Then there are the virus fears--cars that could be infected via Bluetooth and the Independence Day imaginings about who knows what other methods of virus transmission. It's not OK to contemplate mechanical malfunctions called "crashes" when you're hurtling through space at up to 70 miles per hour (or, if you're in California, up to 110).
Dude, where's my funny-looking car?
One of the first hybrids to gain public attention was the Honda Insight, a funny-looking car if ever there was one. Then the Prius debuted with its fashion-forward design. And the thing is, a lot of people just think they're too ugly. Designs are getting better now; the hybrid Ford Escape looks a lot like a standard Escape, and the Honda Civic Hybrid is pretty palatable, too. But the stigma remains: on some level, you have to be willing to stand out to buy a hybrid.
Then, too, there's the cost issue. Hybrid trucks and SUVs cost more than their nonhybrid counterparts, and as much as I want a Ford Escape Hybrid, I'm actually getting better mileage now, in my Golf (I'd have lost $72 per year, to be specific).
Sure, hybrids are being mass-marketed to a sticker-shocked public that's terrified of a $3-per-gallon future. But so far, the marketing doesn't seem, at least to my eyes, to be taking hold. Geeks want these cars, and so do aging hippies. And here in San Francisco, the Toyota Prius is the new Livestrong bracelet--if you're cool, you have one. Period. But that's not really a turn-on to the rest of the country, which is sort of disappointing, considering the ever-declining state of the environment. If people are going to start buying hybrids like gangbusters, I think the experience has to be no different than buying a regular car. Same cost, same degree of danger in any mechanical issues, same styling, same sales pitches. Most consumers aren't going to settle for, say, slower acceleration, the threat of a 60mph stall, or a $5,000 price bump. We're getting there with hybrids, but we still have a long road to drive.