Alt-Fuel Vehicle Sales: Accelerating Upward

By Jonathan Marshall

The glass isn’t yet half full — not even 5 percent, in fact — but high-mileage hybrids, diesels, and plug-in vehicles are making steady progress in the American market, pointing to a promising future of cleaner air, less reliance on foreign oil and slower climate change.

In 2012, sales of alternative-fuel vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius c, reached an all-time high. (Photo by Toyota Motor Sales.)

Last year, combined U.S. sales of the three alternative propulsion types hit an all-time-high of 540,181 vehicles, a jump of 63 percent over 2011. Toyota topped the list with sales of more than 327,000 alternative-fuel vehicles, led by its popular line of Prius hybrids. Volkswagen proved that diesel still enjoys a market in the United States, selling nearly 63,000 of its high-mileage models last year.

Plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles, the newest technology, reached about 50,000, up from 17,400 in 2011. General Motors was king of this small but growing category, selling 23, 461 units of its Chevrolet Volt, more than triple the 7,671 it sold in 2011. Toyota sold nearly 13,000 Prius plug-ins, and Nissan sold just over 9,800 of its all-electric Leafs (Leaves?).

These figures don’t include sales of specialized alternative-fueled utility vehicles, like the extended-range electric trucks, vans and SUVs that PG&E is adding to its fleet of more than 3,100 clean and high-efficiency vehicles. And they don’t reflect the admirable improvement in fuel economy of more traditional vehicles; according to University of Michigan researchers, the average vehicle purchased in October 2012 (the latest month for which data were available) had 21 percent fewer emissions than those purchased in October 2007.

Seven of the top 10 markets for alternative fuel vehicles nationwide are in California, four of them in PG&E’s service area. In the Bay Area, nearly one in every 10 new cars sold is a hybrid. Across the United States, alt-fuel vehicles represented just under 4 percent of the 14.5 million cars and light trucks sold last year.

Although that share is still small, the impressive growth rate suggests that Americans are increasingly receptive to new technologies and cleaner engines. The numbers cast some doubt on a pessimistic assessment of consumer attitudes toward alternative fuel vehicles recently published by the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, based on a 2011 survey.

Sales of the Chevy Volt, a plug-in extended-range electric vehicle, tripled from 2011 to 2012. (Photo by General Motors.)

The report did call proper attention to widespread consumer ignorance about the potential savings on fuel offered by plug-in models. Speaking about the average consumer, John Graham, dean of the school, said, “They don’t realize how cheap the electricity is. And it is very cheap, like 70 to 80 percent less expensive on a per-mile basis than gasoline on average.”

Consumers can apparently smarten up fast when offered the right incentives, however. A recent story in Treehugger notes the wild popularity of electric vehicles in Norway, where buyers last year bought more Nissan Leaf cars than in the United States, with 60 times the population. In all, electric vehicles accounted for more than 5 percent of all cars sold in Norway last year.

Norwegians aren’t necessarily more environmentally correct than Americans. But buyers of electric vehicles appreciate the freedom from steep import duties, the ability to avoid rush-hour traffic by driving in bus lanes, and the right to park free in city spaces. In addition, they have access to more than 3,500 charging stations, easing their range anxiety. If such incentives stay in place, the country is on track to hosting 200,000 electric vehicles by 2020.

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