Are Americans losing their addiction to “muscle cars”?
Well, maybe not immediately, but there are indications of a change. Sales of alternative fuel automobiles (hybrids, flex-fuel vehicles, etc.) rose to a record of nearly 1.8 million vehicles in the USA in 2007, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers’ spokesman Charles Territo revealed exclusively on a “blogger call” Friday. These figures from R. L. Polk, to be released nationally on Monday, represent an increase of nearly fifteen percent from 2006 and show AFAs now constitute slightly more than ten percent of total auto sales.
Car makers are hopeful they will sell more than two million AFAs in 2008, although auto sales in general are down this year with the economic dip. Nevertheless, anecdotal information supports continued growth in the alternative fuel vehicle area. Statistics on first quarter sales on AFAs will not be available for another month, but passenger cars outsold light trucks (SUVs, etc.) in March 2008 for the first time since May 2003. Both of these months saw spikes in gas prices at the pump, lending credence to the theory that fuel costs influence consumers even more than ecological (global warming) or security (energy independence) concerns.
Although notably fuel stingy, diesel automobiles were the only AFA category that saw a small decrease in 2007, due in part to stringent emission controls in the US–in Europe diesels make up 50% of the market–and the reduction of models available from the companies because of technical problems due to the switch to ultra-low sulphur diesel. This sector is expected to grow once this conversion is accomplished.
The number of different alternative vehicles available is increasing in general with 70 AFAs on the market in 2007 (up from 60 in 2006 and 11 in 2000). More dramatic new models are on the horizon, some of which, like the electric Chevrolet Volt (scheduled for 2010) and the Honda hydrogen fuel cell vehicle are “game changers,” which could revolutionize driving as we know it. The Prius is also said to be evolving into a plug-in hybrid. Of course, these developments are dependent on new technologies arriving on time, particularly, in the case of the Volt, in the rapid development of functional lithium-ion batteries. Also slowing the way are huge infrastructure blockages. Of 170,000 refueling stations in the U. S., less than 1500 offer ethanol. Similar questions apply to hydrogen.
We are clearly at a moment during which the automobile is, to a great degree, being reinvented. The question is to what extent we should let market forces govern this and to what extent (and how) these developments should be encouraged by the government. Last year’s CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) Standards were supported by the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers. What, if anything, should happen for the next round?
Roger L. Simon is an Academy Award nominated screenwriter, novelist, blogger and CEO of Pajamas Media.