Even with $4 Gas, Few Drivers Choose Electric Cars—Or Even Hybrids
With each passing month, and with the average gallon of gas rising 1¢ more each day, consumers are turning more and more to fuel-efficient cars. The average new car sold in February got 23.2 mpg, up from 22.9 mpg in January and 21.4 mpg in February 2011. While drivers are increasingly opting for cars with better mileage, though, only a tiny fraction are going with the most fuel-efficient vehicles of all, hybrids and electric cars.
A new TrueCar post traces the average miles-per-gallon rise among new cars sold in the U.S. All of the top seven automakers posted year-over-year increases in average mpg for new cars, and some of the increases are dramatic. Last February, the average new Ford got just 17.3 mpg, compared with 22.2 mpg in February of 2012.
The rise comes primarily as a result of Ford doubling sales of small cars such as the Fusion and the Focus—both traditional, fuel-powered vehicles. Ford’s hybrid cars, on the other hand, didn’t sell well in February. An Autoblog post notes that Ford’s hybrid sales were down 24% last month compared to February 2011, including a 20% drop in sales of the Fusion Hybrid and a 45% decline in the Escape Hybrid.
Honda’s hybrids, the post reports, fared even worse than Ford’s, with a 41% dip compared to the year before. Toyota, by contrast, is the unquestioned hybrid king, thanks almost entirely to the success of the Prius. The company announced that it sold 20,593 new Priuses in February, a rise of 46% compared to the year before.
Even so, hybrids still represent only a very small part of new car sales. Last year, hybrids accounted for only 2.2% of new car purchases, down from 2.4% in 2010. The proportion isn’t expected to change much this year, even as gas prices shoot past $4 per gallon and approach $5 in some cases.
Meanwhile, sales of plug-in electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt are positively down in the dumps. General Motors recently made news with its decision to put production of the Volt on hiatus later this month because of lackluster sales. Nissan sold just 478 Leafs in February, down from 676 in the previous month, when gas was cheaper.
Why aren’t more drivers buying hybrids and EVs? Thus far, the feeling is that the math doesn’t work out for the vast majority of consumers, and the higher upfront prices of these vehicles outweighs the potential fuel savings down the road.
An Edmunds post shows that it usually takes seven or more years of ownership for a consumer to “break even” on a hybrid purchase—meaning that overall costs would be cheaper compared to a similar, traditional-powered car, once years of gas purchases are factored in. A Toyota Corolla, for instance, is about $6,000 less than a Toyota Prius, and the Prius only makes financial sense, on average, if the owner hangs onto it for eight years. Even if gas prices hit $5 a gallon, it would take six years before an owner “broke even” on a Prius, compared to the Corolla.
The average consumer, meanwhile, now hangs onto a new car for less than six years before selling it or trading it in.
The math arguing for picking the Chevy Volt over a comparable traditional-powered car is least convincing of all. According to Edmunds, even after factoring in government subsidies the Volt costs about $12,000 more than its sister, the Chevy Cruze. You’d have to own the Volt for 14 years at current gas prices, or 9 years with $5 per gallon, to break even.
What we have may be a situation of, as Slate calls it, “premature innovation.” Clearly, the vast majority of drivers don’t want EVs right now, and the Detroit Free Press sums up the two main reasons why this is so: “price and range.” As in: The purchase price is too high, and/or gas prices aren’t high enough, combined with so-called “range anxiety”(worries about running out of power before the vehicle’s battery can be recharged), make today’s EVs unattractive compared to the many fuel-efficient, traditional-powered cars in the market.
If money out of pocket is what matters most, then at this point in time, it’s unlikely that either a hybrid or an EV is the smartest way to go. A new Kelley Blue Book post lists 16 cars that run $30,000 or under for total cost of ownership over a five-year period, including estimated fuel consumption and other expected expenses.
Many people look at Asian-Americans’ relatively high incomes, compared to other racial/ethnic groups, and assume this minority group has achieved the American Dream. In fact, Census data reveal Asians have higher average incomes and are less likely to live in poverty than whites (DeNavas, Proctor, & Smith, 2011). Numbers like this lead many to conclude Asians are free from discrimination and are a “model minority” for others to emulate.
However, these numbers regarding Asian-American economic success are misleading. For example, after controlling for factors such as education, number of workers in a household, and regional costs of living,, Asian-Americans’ economic advantages disappear (Kim & Mar, 2007). Like other racial minorities, because of racial discrimination Asians must work harder to get the same economic returns as whites.
But the model minority stereotype is so distracting that many completely overlook overtly racist statements about Asians. A Saturday Night Live clip about the “Linsanity” surrounding NBA player Jeremy Lin illustrates how the racial discourse is regulated quite differently for Asian Americans in comparison to African Americans, drawing on several actual incidents and comments that appeared in coverage of Lin. In this clip, the sportscasters celebrate a headline describing Jeremy Lin as “Amasian,” laugh at signs depicting him inside a fortune cookie, and make statements such as he’s “sweet not sour” and “turned Kobe [Bryant] into Kobe beef.” They also talk about “loving [Lin] long time,” “wax on, wax off Mr. Miyagi,” and “domo arigato, Mr. Lin-boto” as they bow while grinning widely, bang gongs, and mimic martial arts moves. The double standard is revealed as the sportscasters criticize and then fire their peer for saying similar things about Black basketball players, including “Kobe ordered fried chicken,” “Amar’e Stoudemire was dancing like Maury Povich just told him he’s not the father,” and “my homey Carmelo [Anthony] rolls in late” (sorry for the introductory ad):
In fact, Chou and Feagin argue the “model minority” stereotype makes Asians more vulnerable to racism than other racial groups because over-exaggerated notions of success lead many to dismiss prejudice against this group as innocent or harmless. They write, “This distinctive, supposedly positive stereotyping distracts people from seeing the discrimination Asian Americans face every day” (Chou & Feagin, 2008, p. 30). The SNL clip drives home the way this played out with the Jeremy Lin case.
Chou, R. S., & Feagin, J. R. (2008). The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
DeNavas, C., Proctor, B. D., & Smith, J. C. (2011). Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010. U.S. Census Bureau.
Kim, M., & Mar, D. (2007). The Economic Status of Asian Americans. In M. Kim (Ed.), Race and Economic Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century (pp. 148-279). New York, SC: Routledge.
Potter, J., & Wetherell, M. (1987). Discourse and Social Psychology. Sage.
Jason Eastman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University who researches how culture and identity influence social inequalities.