We keep waiting for that moment when the public goes from admiring electric vehicles to purchasing them in large numbers.
Eighteen years ago it was stylish beyond belief, the car that was going to lead us out of the Age of the Internal Combustion Engine and into a green future.
Today the Prius has become somewhat dowdy, a tree-huggers’ car that’s trying to boast great gas mileage at a time when gasoline is about $2.30 a gallon.
“The Prius look is dated and a bit quirky,” Akshay Anand, an analyst Kelley Blue Book, told The New York Times. “The Prius has enormous brand equity, but it needs to be more than just a high-mileage vehicle.”
The collapse of oil prices has not been kind to gas-electric hybrids. Their 50-miles-per-gallon performance, which once doubled that of most models, is now being challenged by standard cars that get 40 mpg without electricity. Hybrids “have gone mainstream,” writes Alex Davies of Wired. “They’re no longer radical, or even all that different.”
As a result, Prius sales have suffered. In 2006 Toyota sold 150,000 of them, and the company overtook General Motors as the largest auto maker in the world. Now that honor goes to Volkswagen, which has a wider variety of hybrids and other fuel-sipping models. Sales of the Prius were down 16.8 percent during the first eight months of this year, compared with the same period last year. Although brand loyalty is still significant, there doesn’t seem to be much headroom for future improvement.
But that may be about to change. Last week on the roof of the Linq Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Toyota roustabouts hoisted a 2016 model 60 feet in the air in front of a crowd of journalists and auto analysts in order to launch a sexy new version of the Prius designed to attract a new generation of followers.
The four-door sedan has a stylish look that has no hint of fuel economy about it. Davies wrote in Wired: “The edgy (and, really, this car is nothing but edges) new look is an effort to stand out again, to reinvigorate sales of a model that has seen its popularity slip in a market that doesn’t place as great a premium on fuel economy.”
Toyota officials believe they have turned a corner. “Now we have a car that’s not just for mom and dad, tree-huggers and people on a budget,” said David Rodgers, vice president of two Toyota dealerships in Northern California. “This is what America’s been waiting for – a hybrid car with edge. It’s something the kids will want to drive.”
The fuel efficiency is still there. Toyota says the model will get 55 miles per gallon, and it still has the best co-efficient of drag in the industry. But with so much competition from similar brands, the company is going to have to rely on other factors as well.
If the early returns from journalists are any indication, Toyota may succeed. “Though we haven’t yet seen a reasonably priced alternative to the Prius, there’s usually not a lot of crossover between hybrid people and electric vehicle people,” said Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “The Model 3 and the new Chevrolet Volt will be increased competition, but there are still Prius loyalists.”
The coming release of the $35,000 Tesla Model 3 and the rejuvenated Chevy Volt should give Toyota plenty of concern. A decade ago the Prius represented 52.4 percent of the alternative-vehicle market. Last year the figure had fallen to 33.5 percent.
One of the biggest things working against the Prius had been, as one observer put it, “it is no fun behind the wheel.” Stylishness was deliberately prosaic because ownership was a statement of frugality. Now all this has changed. When the Prius arrives in showrooms early next year, the improvements built into the car will “lift it from its mundane, efficiency-focused past and put it before the eyeballs of a wider audience of buyers,” wrote Mark Vaughn of Autoweek.
“Our biggest complaint about the previous Toyota Prius has been the driving experience, which is only slightly less exciting than reading a dictionary,” writes Aaron Gold in Consumer Reports. “We’re pleased to see the styling of the 2016 Toyota Prius has taken on more personality, and we like the idea of better fuel economy. The promise of more driver involvement is intriguing, but then again, Toyota’s definition of fun-to-drive doesn’t necessarily match ours. We’re optimistic, but to find out whether the new Prius will address our most serious complaints—too much noise and not enough fun—we’ll have to wait until we buy one for a full road test.”
Finally, Steve Siler of Car and Driver says: “… the styling evokes the futuristic hot mess that is the hydrogen-powered Mirai, although it’s not nearly as hideous. Say what you will about the overall design, but those taillights are pretty amazing. Welcome back, tailfins!”
Most important, the Prius revival may extend well beyond Toyota’s fortunes. As Edmunds.com analyst Jeremy Acevedo put it: “With the aged outgoing model and low gas prices dragging down sales, the 2016 Prius will be a much-needed shot in the arm for not only Toyota, but the entire green car segment.”
Americans love their freedom to choose. Someone invents something, and competitors rush in with their own similar products to fight for a market that didn’t exist before.
This is what Tesla has done with the electric vehicle: The Model S is making cold-eyed journalists swoon, and the next few months are huge: The company will soon release its eagerly awaited crossover SUV, the Model X, followed by its more-eagerly awaited “affordable” sedan, the Model 3.
But Tesla shouldn’t get too comfortable, because the established auto-makers want to steal some of its quiet, zero-emission thunder with EVs of their own: In the past week, Toyota unveiled the new Prius, trying to assure everyone it can be cool as well as get 10 percent more miles out of a battery charge; Edmunds gave its blessing for the 2016 Chevy Volt; there was a possible sighting of the 2016 Nissan Leaf, the best-selling EV in the U.S.; and there were rumors that Mercedes-Benz is working on an electric car than has a range of 311 miles.
It’s a basic rule of economics: Competitive markets are good for consumers. Which is why drivers should be demanding fuel choice as well.
Gasoline is cheap now, but it doesn’t take much to cause a price spike: The threat of a supply constriction overseas; a refinery going down (and staying down, in California’s case); output quotas in OPEC nations. Anything can cause volatility in the global market. Businesses don’t like uncertainty, and it’s bad for consumers as well.
The only way to reduce the cost structure of fuels over the long term is to create fuel choice, something the United States has never known. To quote former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister: “We will never get past the volatility of oil until we get to alternatives to oil.”
We’re not advocating an end to fossil fuels. We just want fuel choice: Ethanol, methanol, CNG, LNG, biodiesel, hydrogen and, yes, electric batteries. Anything that reduces our dependence on oil is good for America.
If gasoline, the same fuel we’ve been stuck with for more than a century, is the superior fuel for vehicles, let it compete with other choices at the pump. If oil companies don’t want competition, what are they afraid of?
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It seems like a kind of Hollywood fantasy — autonomous little roadsters scooting in and out of traffic, breathlessly avoiding collisions and getting to their destination before anyone else.
Then again, it seems like the inevitable. If computers can perform medical diagnoses, accomplish instant translations for tourists and power Martian rovers, what’s so complicated about driving a car?
The self-driving car has gotten a lot of publicity lately. Google has a demonstration project and there have been the usual speculations about how long before self-drivers become a common sight. Four states have passed legislation allowing their operation and this month self-driving cars received the ultimate accolade of any new technology by being opposed by the Ralph Nader’s Consumer Watchdog, thereby joining fracking, nuclear power, GMO foods and other technological advances as being opposed by the Naderites.
Yet in truth, the idea of self-driving vehicles has been around for a long, long time. Experiments go back as far back as the 1920s. Engineers tried burying electric cables beneath the road to send signals that would keep cars on track. With the development of computers, however, research switched to autonomous vehicles with a dozen auto manufacturers and universities doing serious work.
In 1995, Carnegie Mellon University built an autonomous vehicle that traveled 3,100 miles cross-country for the “No Hands Across America” tour, with only minimal human intervention. In 2005, a Google vehicle equipped with 3D cameras, radar and a software package called Google Chauffeur won a $2 million prize in a Grand Challenge sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. In 2010, four self-driving vehicles designed at the University of Parma, Italy duplicated Marco Polo’s expedition by driving from Italy to China with only occasional intervention by their human drivers. Google’s fleet of a dozen self-driving cars has now logged 700,000 miles on public highways without experiencing any trouble. The only accident occurred when one of them was read-ended by another vehicle at a traffic light.
Indeed, as things stand now, the biggest obstacle to widespread adoption may be the predictable human reluctance to have the wheel taken out of their hands. One poll in Germany found that while 22 percent of respondents had a positive attitude toward driverless cars, 44 percent were skeptical and 24 percent were actively hostile toward the idea.
So aside from inspiring a hundred high school science projects and proving that computer geeks can do just about anything, what would be the advantage of self-driving vehicles? Here are a few of the possibilities:
Greater fuel efficiency: Advocates say that the precision achieved by automated vehicles in evening out traffic flows would cut down on national gasoline consumption. Instead of some cars dawdling in the fast lane while others weave in and out, traffic would follow a much more orderly pattern. Estimates are that a large fleet of self-driving vehicles could cut national fuel consumption by as much as 10 percent.
The advance of non-gasoline fuel systems: Since the experiments with trolley-like electronic tracks of the 1920s, self-driving systems have been associated with electric cars. While it will be perfectly possible to mount self-driving equipment on a gasoline-powered car, the “wave of the future” seems to be associated with non-gasoline vehicles. Google’s self-driver runs on electricity as do nearly all other experimental models.
Fewer accidents: Although humans may be reluctant to admit it, the vast majority of accidents are caused by driver error. The 360-degree visibility and unblinking vigilance of self-drivers could be a vast improvement. Many new cars are already beginning to incorporate some of the features with rear-view cameras and automatic braking. The 2014 Mercedes S-class offers options for self-parking, automatic accident avoidance and driver fatigue detection. One website that projects the self-driving future even suggests that the main job losses would be among: 1) hospital emergency room services, 2) auto repair shops and 3) trial lawyers specializing in auto accidents!
Peer-to-peer sharing of traffic information: The end point of self-driving would be a peer-to-peer information-sharing system whereby individual vehicles would be warned of congestion and traffic tie-ups and routed away from them. A 2010 study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projected that an amazing 80 percent of all traffic accidents could be avoided by such a peer-to-peer system that smooth out traffic patterns and prevent cars from bumping into each other on congested highways.
More efficient traffic lights: How much time and gas is wasted by cars waiting for the light to change when no cars are coming in the crossing lane? Computerized systems linked to self-drivers could do wonders to hasten traffic flow and ease the time needlessly spent waiting for red lights.
Driving services for people who cannot drive: Many elderly and handicapped people cannot drive under ordinary circumstances, but could manage a vehicle in which they program it to tell it where they want to go. One of Google’s first early adapters was Steve Mahan, a California resident who is legally blind. This YouTube video shows him running a series of errands through his neighborhood, including a visit to a drive-in taco stand. All this might seem that it would increase driving and add to the nation’s fuel consumption until you consider that many of these people are already serviced by elaborate jitney systems that spend a great deal of time making empty runs. Once again, self-drivers would add precision and efficiency to the system.
Mass public transit — the possibility of a whole new personal mobility system: At the end point of this new technology is the vision of a whole new transportation system where far fewer vehicles would be needed to get people where they want to go. Driving this vision is the statistic that the average car is parked 90 percent of the time. If these vehicles could be put to more efficient use — something along the lines of bike-sharing on city streets — then the need for vehicles might be drastically reduced. Particularly in urban settings, more efficient matching of vehicles and passengers would cut down on the need for street parking. Uber, the San Francisco company that matches passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire, is now operating in 200 cities in 42 countries around the globe. The fuel savings it creates through matching efficiency are phenomenal.
Much of the fruits of these innovations are still in the future, but don’t put it past innovators like Google to make it happen quickly. In 2012 the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles issued the country’s first license to a Toyota Prius modified with Google technology. Florida and Michigan have also issued permits for road testing. Next January, Google will launch 200 gumdrop-shaped vehicles completely void of steering wheel, brake and gas pedal that will begin cruising the streets of Mountain View, Calif., in an experiment supervised by the California DMV.
The future may be closer than we think.