Data point: a recent poll shows half of all Americans now say they would like to buy or lease a hybrid, if they could afford it.
If the poll is to be believed, it may be profitable for manufacturers to drop price in order to increase demand, and hence revenue. My understanding is that currently prices are high because companies want to recoup R&D costs over the perceived small 'early adopter' customer base.
If this poll is true, these companies are not doing their homework, which seems surprising... unless they have an interest in not cannibalizing their non-hybrid products.
The problem really is the purchase cost. At current U.S. gas prices, it costs quite a bit more per mile to drive a hybrid than it does to drive a similar gasoline-powered vehicle. Gasoline prices would have to be around $6/gallon in the U.S. for current hybrids to be as economical per mile as non-hybrids (according to a recent article I read, in the Economist, I believe).
I have yet to see data on the energy consumption for manufacturing a hybrid versus manufacturing a gas-powered vehicle. If one of the reasons hybrids cost more is that manufacturing a hybrid consumes more energy than manufacturing a standard car, then the gain from hybrids in terms of energy conservation will be less than what pure mileage numbers would indicate...
If they lowered the price, do they have the manufacturing capacity to meet the higher demand? I was under the impression that their manufacturing capacity for hybrids is quite low, relatively speaking...
It seems like hybrids would do well in congested traffic, which is where the lowest fuel consumption is realized, and which affects a large population by its very nature. But, if you're driving on a free-flowing highway, hybrids will not do you (or the environment) that much good.
One discouraging approach by some people to hybrids that I've seen is that the expectation that they'll allow you to drive more for the same amount of gas. If that's all they bring to the table, they'll do nothing for reduction of energy consumption. And, as Kevin said, maybe they cost more in energy to produce than do traditional cars.
I have some real concerns about the environmental impact of the batteries in hybrids (production, disposal, etc)... I haven't seen enough information on this. And, even if you lower the price of the vehicle, you still have the possibility that you'll have to replace the battery in 7 years (which is when the warranty runs out), likely at great expense.
Kevin, could you qualify your statement? What new cars cost less to own and drive than say, a Toyota Prius? In the US, there may be 10 to 12 at the most. I think that in certain cases you're right. I drive a Toytoa Matrix at 35 mpg because I drive very little. (My wife drives a lot, and owns a Prius.) The Prius is not the cheapest car to own and drive, but it is among the cheapest, and millions of Americans blithely pay much more to own and drive worse-performing cars.
The initial cost for hybrids is usually higher, while the cost of ownership (at least for the Prius and Civic) is eventually lower*, so it depends on the time frame you examine.
The great foley of auto consumers (perpetuated by auto companies) is looking at purchase price instead of cost of ownership. For cars in the Prius price range the highest cost in owning it is actually insurance (and for luxury cars it's resale value).
What we can all do to educate our fellow consumers is to frame the costs of hybrids in terms of cost of ownership rather than purchase price.
Gasoline prices would have to be around $6/gallon in the U.S. for current hybrids to be as economical per mile as non-hybrids
That's a persistent myth.
Right now whats holding it back is not enough parts and the need for a few more generations of designs before they are mass market ready. Even the best hybrid designs right now are not mass market ready.