What if every automaker sold almost 30,000 hybrids last month?

The Toyota Prius and hybrid cars make sense, too bad the rest of the auto industry doesn't get it.

Toyota Prius - dumbest idea ever

When optimism is worse than pessimism

I believe one day fuel cells and hydrogen will become viable technologies. When, however, is practically anyone’s guess, but fuel cells prove that avoiding action today while waiting for perfect world solutions tomorrow is a very bad idea. Otherwise, there might have been real change after the Iranian oil embargo that could have prevented 9/11, Iraq, Libya, and now Iran again.

Ironically, last month Toyota sold nearly 30,000 hybrid cars built on technologies largely developed, or at least inspired, here in the US, mostly derived from fuel cell-related technologies significantly subsided by US taxpayers.

That makes me wonder, what if the Big 3 hadn’t given up on hybrids, and all the major automakers sold nearly 30,000 hybrid cars last month?

And, more disconcerting, have plug-ins become a fuel cell-like excuse not to do more today?

If every automaker had now sold millions of hybrid cars, as has Toyota, imagine the much more robust battery supply chains that would now exist — and be better able to deal with interim plug-in adoption fickleness. Imagine 10 million plug-in conversion-ready hybrid cars already on the road today fighting the legacy effect of the auto industry, with many tens of millions more ready to hit the streets in just the next few years based on Toyota’s reliable hybrid forecasting. By the next decade, when electric car battery technologies are predicted to finally start hitting their stride, the legacy effect could largely be under control, and even further upgradeable.

Instead, automakers waited for fuel cells, and even as the Prius became a success, they tried to leap frog the Prius with plug-ins. Yet, auto execs knew that it would be many years, even a decade or decades, before a plug-in would outsell the Prius. The move into plug-ins wasn’t driven by sales, it was driven by PR. Plug-ins today are halo products, PERIOD.

But plug-ins are also great PC PR.

Of course, there is every reason to be incredibly excited and optimistic about electrification and plug-in vehicles. These vehicles offer great potential, potential that will be tapped, eventually. The problem is, plug-in tech just is not yet very ripe, and even if all the barriers were relatively overcome, consumers still aren’t ready.

Sadly, however, even the plug-in bulls of the auto industry aren’t predicting massive scale until the next decade, minimally, with little concurring support from the rest of the industry or the analysts that cover it.

Certainly, the industry and the analysts could be wrong, but even the best case scenarios demonstrate how long the plug-in revolution will take to develop. Can’t we do more in the interim?

Take plug-in tax credits for example. Are they really effective? Are they pushing automakers ever faster into battery technologies, or are they enabling automakers to slowly roll out plug-ins while selling as many gas-guzzling pickup trucks and 40 mpg small cars — but only on the highway and almost never in the real world — as possible?

Even worse, in my opinion, the tax credits embrace inefficiency. It is simply a fact that today’s batteries, often the larger they are, are wasteful because of cell integrity. One day we’ll be better able to manage this redundant issue with new battery technologies, but today we’re embracing expensive inefficiencies.

Think about it for a second. Today, Toyota has sold millions of hybrid cars and Prius drivers are one of the biggest potential consumer segments for adopting plug-in technologies. If the plug-in Prius qualifed for the full federal tax credit today, it wouldn’t cost that much more than the non-plug-in Prius. That’s the path to increased plug-in adoption.

Are we trying to embrace change and competition or protectionism because focusing on battery size just isn’t a very logical or intelligent metric based on today’s technologies.

Just because, in theory, greater EV range is better doesn’t mean that’s the right focus today, especially if it means delaying and inhibiting real change that can be achieved today. And seriously, as consumers embrace plug-in technologies, they’ll naturally begin to demand more electric range, and as it becomes cost-effective, automakers will give it to them. EV range will take care of itself. The goal should be to get as many people into the most cost-effective plug-in technologies as possible as fast as possible.

When Toyota’s tax credits for hybrid cars expired, I argued they should have been able to go after the tax credits of other automakers since they weren’t being utilized, but that would have been unfair to the poor old big 3 whom had already developed these technologies with the help of billions in tax payer funding, but ignored them, and now they’d have their hybrid lunch eaten too.

But, imagine that tax credit had been written that way immediately. That would have pushed automakers to take hybrids much more seriously, and maybe every automaker might have sold 30,000 hybrids last month.

And that’s why the fed tax credit should be more like California’s — one credit for all. Regulators and politicians should never try to predict technology, they should focus on creating quality competition based around smart goals. If they want to try to predict technologies, then they should take over the businesses that build those technologies if they can profitably run them so much more effectively.

Of course that isn’t the case, that’s why they’re politicians and regulators and not business leaders.

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