Undoubtedly Mike Millikin will have more to say in his Sustainable Sunday transportation wrap-up, but this week's North American International Auto Show seems to have been the platform for at least two of the big three US carmakers to pretend that they haven't let Toyota and Honda get the better of them in terms of green cars.
Ford announced that it will have five hybrid models for sale within three years. Its current hybrid mini-SUV, the Escape, will be matched by another mini-SUV, the Mercury Mariner, in 2005, and a pair of hybrid mid-size sedans by 2008. Ford also provided more details on a diesel-hybrid concept car, the Meta One.
A bit more forward-looking technologically, if still behind the ball in terms of actual roll-out, GM unveiled two advanced technology hybrid concept vehicles -- a midsize SUV hybrid and a diesel hybrid sedan -- as well as a hydrogen concept car, the Sequel. The Sequel, like the second-generation Honda FCX, approaches real-world usability in terms of range (~300 miles) and performance. Of course, as "concept cars," GM makes no promises that they'll ever make these available to buyers.
I find it interesting -- and a bit sad -- that Ford and GM continue to focus so heavily on the higher-weight end of the automotive spectrum. It's not that they shouldn't add hybrid technology to SUVs and big sedans and the like; I suspect that, within a decade, hybrid technologies will be found across the line. It's more that they refuse to offer a real competitor (in terms of efficiency) to the Honda Civic Hybrid or the Toyota Prius -- none of the US automaker hybrids now on sale or soon to be on sale have mileage figures anywhere near the levels of Japanese hybrids from two or three years ago. I wouldn't be surprised if some of these hybrid SUVs turn out to be commercial flops: they don't have enough of a mileage improvement to appeal to hybrid buyers looking for efficiency, and add a large enough amount to the price tag to deter people just looking for the latest model big vehicle.
The problem with all these hybrid SUVs is that if you're buying a SUV, you're probably not very eco-conscious in the first place.
The excellent book: "High & Mighty: The dangerous rise of the SUV" shows that even the carmakers will admit - based on their extensive marketing research - that people don't buy SUVs because they need off-road capacities or big cargo areas (and that they are not really safer in them, but that's another thing), but because it appeals to people's "reptilian" brain; it's all about image, ego, and gut feeling.
In optimizing software, you prioritize by going after the worst offender first. I'm going to be the contrarian here and say hybridizing SUVs would probably be a bigger win than having more cars like the Honda Civic Hybrid. The added cost of a hybrid could be a smaller fraction of an SUV's cost than of a small car's cost.
Currently, we tell people they have to give up all the things that appeal to their reptilian brain, and they're not going for it. It's not working. We have to do something different. If we instead tell people they don't have to give up what they want, but pay a small amount upfront and save $$ in gas (let's raise gas taxes too), then I think they're more likely to go hybrid.
While many people would like to think all suv buyers are just using thier reptilian brain... they arnt.
The fact is most suv buyers are buying the suv for the same exact reason many years ago many eviro people bought vw buses.
If your going on a 800 mile vacation drive your not going in a minicar...
Poeple drive to vacation stops far more now adays and any time you go more then 600 miles to one you realy enjoy the room and confort AND big gas tank of an suv.
Now hybrids can be sold on the fact that its confy enough to vacation in AND you can travel even farther between fillups and if all else fails and the main engine barfs on you partway the other engine might be able to get you to the nearest town;/
That an if you run outa gas you still have a few miles left in the battery...
Most everyone I know personaly who has a large suv is also an avid vacationer who DRIVES there. The other typicaly buy MINI suvs wich franlkly are just comfier then minivans.