Can hybrids save US from foreign oil?
Red-hot demand for Priuses causes doubters to take second look.
Actress Cameron Diaz and Roy Jefferson, a retired government accountant from Fargo, N.D., have something in common: They both love their hybrid gas-electric cars that get 50-plus miles per gallon.Skip to next paragraph
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"I laugh when I go by the gas stations" without filling up, says Mr. Jefferson, an octogenarian.
The growing enthusiasm for hybrids is rattling the faith of America's automakers, who have long believed that consumers don't care about fuel efficiency. And it has opened the door to a new theory that hybrid cars - long predicted to be a niche market and a way station to future hydrogen autos - are themselves the answer to revolutionize the fleet and trim the nation's surging dependence on foreign oil.
For proponents of energy independence in the United States, the current level of dependency is worrisome. Last year, 56 percent of the nation's oil - some 11 million barrels a day - came from abroad. That's far more than the one-third share imported during the first oil crisis of the 1970s. And it's halfway to the two-thirds share projected for 2025, if nothing changes.
To reduce that dependence will require a massive modernization of America's transportation fleet, especially more efficient passenger cars and light trucks. So are hybrids up to the task?
Most auto analysts still say no, since an enormous number of hybrids would have to be sold over more than a decade to have a real impact. Still, demand for hybrids, the Prius in particular, is so strong that customers are waiting weeks to get one. Some used 2004 Priuses are selling for thousands of dollars more than the cost of a new one. On Tuesday, Toyota announced it would begin building its first North American hybrid car in 2006 at its Georgetown, Ky., plant.
The numbers are turning some heads.
"I was a huge skeptic," says Walter McManus, an auto industry researcher at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor. "But I've basically crossed over to the dark side. You can't argue with the market reaction." He estimates Toyota, Honda, and others will sell at least 1.2 million hybrid vehicles by 2010 - about 7 percent of the US market - and possibly much higher.
If all US cars (not including light trucks) were Priuses today, the nation would save 15 percent more oil than it received from the Persian Gulf in 2002, writes energy-efficiency guru Amory Lovins in his recent book "Winning the Oil Endgame."
Of course, a sudden switch is virtually impossible, since there are roughly 235 million cars and light trucks on the road in the US today. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of those - some 200,000 - are hybrids. So the speed of the conversion will determine how much imported oil the nation might save.
"In our view the hybrids represent a long-term trend toward a dramatically more efficient fleet," concluded consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in a 2004 report.
For example: If consumers keep snapping up hybrids and automakers begin to integrate the technology throughout their product lines - including pickup trucks - then hybrids might quickly reach 20 percent of new vehicle sales by 2010 and 80 percent by 2015, according to another Booz Allen Hamilton report. That's the most optimistic of three scenarios the management consulting firm laid out. In the "high adoption" scenario, hybrids would save 2 million barrels of gasoline a day by 2015; in the "medium adoption" scenario, 800,000 barrels of gasoline.
Other estimates vary widely. Hybrids could be 10 percent to 15 percent of new vehicle sales by 2012, the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory concluded in a report last summer. Together, hybrids and efficient "clean diesels" could be 40 percent of new car sales by then if the technologies are widely adopted, it said.
But with gasoline use increasing 1.7 percent a year through 2025, hybrids' impact on oil consumption will be small, according to the latest outlook by the US Department of Energy. It predicts only 1.1 million hybrids will be sold in 2025. Even in the most optimistic case, assuming rapid adoption of hybrid and other car technologies, the US would still chop only 172 million barrels of oil a year by 2025 - about 2.5 percent of expected oil imports that year. On the other side, Mr. McManus predicts more hybrids will be sold in 2010 than the DOE's 2025 estimate.
So who's right? Consumers are eager. Last month, 49 percent of new-car buyers, the highest level ever, had changed their mind or were thinking strongly about buying a vehicle they would not have considered because of gas prices, according to a survey by Harris Interactive and Kelley Blue Book.