When automakers rolled out their electric cars three years ago, they had big plans. Even President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address in 2011, predicted there would be as many as a million of them on the nation's roads by the middle of the decade.
Results have, so far, fallen far short of expectations. But for hybrid cars — which alternately run on gasoline engines and battery power — it has been a different story.
Hybrids have quietly entered the mainstream of the American auto market.
Today, more than 40 conventional hybrid models are available, from mass-market automakers such as Toyota and Ford to luxury brands including BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Hybrids account for about 3 percent of overall industry sales, with the market-leading Toyota Prius cracking the Top 10 list of best-selling passenger cars.
By contrast, automakers offer only about a dozen all-electric cars or plug-in models — which run on battery power with assistance from a gasoline engine — though more are on the way.
Forecast through 2020
Electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S, will remain less than 1 percent of the market in 2020, while plug-in models such as the Chevrolet Volt and Ford Fusion Energi will command just 2 percent of the market by then, says LMC Automotive, a sales-forecasting company. Gasoline-electric hybrids, such as the Prius, is expected to grow to 5 percent in seven years, from 3 percent now.
— Bloomberg News
Industry analysts say that hybrid models are now showing up on the shopping lists of a broad range of consumers.
"Conventional hybrids are mainstream now," says John O'Dell, the green-car editor at Edmunds. "You can envision almost anyone buying one."
The reasons are many. Hybrids cost less than most electric models. There are no limitations on driving range based on battery power. And the technology, once seen as exotic and possibly unreliable, has been proven over time in real-world driving conditions.
One of the hybrid converts is Pandian Athirajan, an IBM product manager in Austin, Texas. He had been considering buying a Prius for years before taking the plunge this year.
He bought the Prius to save gas and reduce vehicle emissions, but only because its hybrid system had been perfected by Toyota since it was introduced in 2000.
"I wanted to buy a third-generation hybrid so that all kinks were ironed out," Athirajan says.
Manufacturers are also fighting an uphill battle to win over consumers worried about the distances they can travel before recharging in a purely electric car.
That was one reason Athirajan chose a hybrid. Even though his hometown has several public charging stations, Athirajan was concerned about making the 300-mile drive to Houston twice a month to visit his daughter.
Analysts say that the public's tepid response to electric vehicles, and the embrace of hybrids, is typical of the way people adopt new technology.
"They all come onto the market very slowly and then begin to accelerate," says Philip G. Gott, senior director at IHS Automotive. "Hybrids are beginning to accelerate."
Leading that growth is the Prius. Toyota has expanded the Prius lineup to three hybrid models, along with a plug-in model. It was the 12th-best-selling vehicle over the summer in the United States.
Toyota, which offers 11 hybrid models, including its Lexus brand, says that being first to the market helped the Prius remain the best-selling hybrid. The Prius accounts for about 70 percent of hybrids sold.
"It wasn't an overnight success," says Jana Hartline, a Toyota spokeswoman. "It was considered by many to be a science experiment. I think it just took people a while to understand the benefits of hybrid technology, but now it's pretty clear that there's no compromise on the part of the consumer. You just get in, turn it on and drive."