Hybrid vehicle market begins to emerge
Preliminary results of a new survey show demand for hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) among some of the country’s largest local governments. But even advocates of the technology say the vehicles face major roadblocks to widespread use.
U.S. Communities, a purchasing alliance sponsored in part by the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Counties (NACo), recently surveyed the country’s 500 largest local governments to gauge interest in hybrids. Initial data indicate that in the next three years respondents will buy about 10,000 sedans, 6,000 pickup trucks, 2,200 SUVs and 2,800 vans in the HEV format, says U.S. Communities founder Steve Swendiman. By comparison, those same governments plan to buy a total of about 54,000 vehicles — including hybrid, gas-only and alternative-fuel models — in 2004 alone.
HEVs combine a small combustion engine with an electric motor and battery to increase fuel efficiency and reduce smog-forming emissions. The 2004 Honda Insight, for example, gets an estimated 68 miles per gallon on the highway, and tailpipe emissions from the 2004 Toyota Prius are nearly 90 percent cleaner than the national average.
Swendiman is studying the feasibility of a national cooperative-purchasing contract that would help local governments buy hybrids at a reduced cost. He and other proponents say such a contract could help hybrids enter the mainstream. If the idea becomes a reality, King County, Wash., likely would be the lead buyer. Its fleet now includes 62 Toyota Prius sedans, which cost about $20,000 each compared to around $15,000 each for their traditional, combustion-only counterparts.
Windell Mitchell, King County’s fleet administrator, plans to buy at least 30 additional HEVs in 2005. Protecting the environment is a priority for Mitchell’s Seattle-area colleagues, but he mainly cites cost-savings to justify hybrids. He estimates that a 2003 Toyota Prius costs $2,660 less over its lifetime than one of his fleet’s conventional 2003 Chevy Malibus. “We’re looking at a payback within three or three-and-a-half years,” he says.
That does not surprise clean-vehicles expert David Friedman of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists. Hybrids capture energy lost during braking and return it to the battery, reducing wear on their gasoline engines. And because the electric motor kicks in at lower speeds or when the vehicle is idling, hybrids’ gas engines receive less overall use. The byproducts, Friedman explains, are lower maintenance costs and a longer vehicle life.
Some critics are skeptical that HEV owners can recoup the difference in purchase price quickly. In a recent report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example, an engineer compared the 2003 Honda Civic HEV ($21,000) with the conventional 2003 Honda Civic EX ($17,000) and calculated that making up the cost difference through gas-savings alone could take about 20 years. However, that could be less of an issue for governments, because fleet drivers put much more mileage on their vehicles than regular consumers, thus reducing the time it takes to recover savings through gas consumption.
Hybrid drivers report few problems with speed or range. But with today’s tight budgets, Mitchell acknowledges, HEVs’ high prices tend to be a deal-breaker for most fleets. And there are other drawbacks as well. Unlike compressed natural-gas or propane vehicles, no federal incentives encourage governments to buy hybrids. Westlake, Calif.-based J.D. Power and Associates notes that just eight HEV models are available to commercial fleets this year. “The biggest stumbling block now is the lack of choice,” Friedman says.
Wyatt Earp, fleet manager for the Marion County, Fla., Sheriff’s Department, recently ordered nine Toyota Priuses to bring the total number of HEVs in his SUV-intensive, 516-vehicle fleet to 12. He says he would love to see an affordable hybrid four-wheel-drive vehicle but will settle for the Prius. “We burn 450,000 to 500,000 gallons of fuel per year,” Wyatt says. “We’ve got to be conscious of that.”
Joel Groover is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.