University of South Florida
When I first wrote the foundation for this article on “Consumer Resistance to General Motors Hybrid Vehicles” nearly six years ago, I was hoping to make sense of the unexpected marketing challenges that we uncovered when Americans proved surprisingly reluctant to purchase the General Motors electric and hybrid option vehicles in 2012.
The market timing of 2009-2012 seemed ideal for electric automobile technology, with record high fuel prices, deeper understandings of global warming and the inevitable decline of petroleum production in the coming century.
On the surface, it seemed to be a reasonable assumption in 2012, that industry projections for alternate fuel vehicles would become a reality and “most cars of the future” (by 2020 was the expectation) would employ some form of electric or hybrid powertrain.
It is ironic how eight years into the future seemed limitless in its potential; but, eight years ago, feels like it was just yesterday.
How could anyone not want inexpensive clean energy cars; especially, ones that cost less than a dinosaur powered vehicle?
Few people would even argue that oil reserves could possibly sustain our current demand for gasoline for future generations.
The proposed electric car technology was reliable, those powertrains had proven their reliability for a decade of testing.
The price was certainly right, General Motors hybrid options for Buick Lacrosse and Chevrolet Malibu were priced the same as the gas versions and, as bonus, the hybrids were even more powerful and provided income tax credits.
How could that not sell like a syrup covered hot cake????
I still shake my head in amazement at how difficult it was to get rid of the hybrids we ordered in 2011 at our Buick-GMC store. Several sales managers would have probably been fired if our veteran inventory manager Sandy had not pushed back and insisted that we limit our initial order to six units rather than the twenty that I thought was a very modest forecast …. this was not her first rodeo.
Sandy probably saved my job and managed to dealer trade most of those six aged units from our inventory and I for one, learned a valuable lesson in product development: think twice before building a superior solution for customers who do not see a problem worth solving.
Since that realization I, like many in the industry, have concluded that unless government intervention mandates the phase out of petroleum powertrains, the adoption rate of electric-powered vehicles could take another two decades. Looking ahead now from 2018, I have adjusted my expectations down a few notches from back in 2012; now, I suspect that relying on the market demand alone to bring electric powertrains to full-scale adoption would be overly optimistic.
I find myself taunting the overzealous Tesla enthusiasts with history trivia that the automaker Detroit Electric nearly overtook gas automobiles in the early 1900s, selling over 13,000 electric cars that had top speed of 20 mph and a recharge range of 80 miles. A current Tesla 3 base model is rated for 220 miles of recharge range and with modern production capability has only recently surpassed 200,000 units sold. That seems like a miniscule amount of progress made across the 100 years of technology that evolved between the two.
It also seems unlikely that government intervention will mandate the phase-out of the internal combustion engine. Some assumptions could be made regarding the far-reaching economic disruptions to foreign trade markets, devastation to the economies of export countries, displaced petroleum workers, and the reallocation of every dollar generated throughout the gasoline supply chain, not to mention the economic impact to the plastics and chemical industries which rely on the waste byproducts of oil for cheap fundamental ingredients.
So, despite being a GM guy whose career was built on gas engine emissions and combustion technology, I must admit that I had been rooting for Elon Musk’s solar-powered auto revolution. Mostly because, I hoped to avoid becoming one of those cynical old guys who fights progress, for no reason other than, maintaining a comfortable status-quo.
I am still optimistic that electric powertrains will become mainstream and that automobiles will convert to solar charged electricity before the rest of the power grid. However, I am imagining that the solar revolution will plod forward slowly for decades in a long-drawn-out guerilla war due to the lack of strong market pull for those alternative fuel vehicles while the petroleum industry survives long enough to support the codependent plastics industry until renewable sourced manufacturing ingredients are developed.
Hopefully Tesla investors are long-range thinkers and have prepared for the long road ahead when consumer demand someday aligns with electric automobile technology. Recently Tesla’s investors had their confidence shaken when company stock prices dropped over 60% during the first week of April over a combination of news that was only slightly negative. If that bearish responsiveness is any indicator of the market, we could expect that a prolonged loss of investor confidence could snuff out the young company before they make it to the finish line.
Few people in the auto industry expect the Tesla plants to disappear or its existing cars to become obsolete. However, a sharp drop in Tesla market value will most likely lure General Motors or Toyota in to absorb the brand at a bargain price in the coming years. Unfortunately, if that happens, a Tesla surviving without Musk at the helm will probably see electric car technology being pushed to the back burner, adding several additional decades to reach full market potential.
It is times such as this that it becomes apparent that consumers (and voters) stated principals fail to correlate with their actions. This anomaly of consumer behavior manages to slow the adoption of superior technology for reasons that will remain a mystery.
My personal experience from being on the front lines, trying to persuade General Motors customers to buy the hybrid powertrain has burned this demand paradox into my view of most technological advances.
For now, we can appreciate how one man, Elon Musk, passionate about his vision for solar power has managed to get far enough to pose a serious market threat to all three economic super powers: auto manufacturing, petroleum and the global power grid. I tip my GM hat to the relentless visionary and hope he makes it to the finish line to prove the naysayers wrong.
As a matter of fact, back in 2012, I used to tell a similar story to this one about rates of technology adoption, it was my own story about the technology predictions of a decade earlier. In 2002, a full two years before Elon Musk joined Tesla, while he was busy building PayPal, I enrolled in an Automotive Technology program and was introduced to Professors suggesting that our class focus on the General Motors hybrid trucks and Chevrolet EV1 electric prototypes from the parking lot, since they would be the products in the market when we finished the program in 2005.
Not taking any credit away from the Tesla contributions, but electric and hybrid gas/electric models were well-developed by several large automakers and proven in field testing long prior to 2002. General Motors introduced the GM Impact electric car prototype in 1990 and revised it several times into the EV1 in 1996, adding the S10 EV truck in 1997, the duo sold around 1600 units from 1996 through 2002 when they were discontinued due to high replacement battery costs.
GM prepared the next generation of alternative fuel powertrains, this time using smaller batteries in combination with the standard gas engine, allowing drivers to select between gas and electric modes. The added value proposition to hybrid technology being that the hybrid optioned car could still be driven in standard gasoline mode if the customer chose not to spend the $10,000 plus to replace the batteries required for the electric mode.
In 2002, most of us in the GM world thought this hybrid technology would provide the company with the competitive edge needed to fend off the Japanese competitors in the global market. Inside GM, everyone seemed fully committed to the project and the service press even printed the repair manuals and training materials for an expected hybrid truck product release.
We were told that the first hybrids would release no later than 2005. Surprisingly though, with the exception of the quiet release of a small batch of hybrid tucks in 2005, General Motors delayed the marketing air campaign for hybrid offerings until 2009. The marketing launch failed to build the required buzz among consumers and even with $4 gas, the hybrids were seen by most as a dismal market flop. Some environmental critics claim that the marketing campaign was designed to flop with a hope of preserving GM’s previous investments in gas engine technology while also winning support of environmentally focused politicians.
Regardless of the motives of the ineffective marketing campaign, I was there when new customers came to our showrooms to test drive hybrid models, then agreed with the proposition of the revolutionary technology; but, when it came time to sign the finance contracts, the agreement fizzled out. Many of these deals fell apart in the finance office, when the customers began contemplating uncertain future repair costs, trade in values, warranty extensions and differences in insurance rates. It seemed like many feared that hybrids would be a passing fad and they could be stuck investing in a car that would have limited resale or trade in value.
In fact, from 2008 to 2018 the General Motors dealership I worked at sold around 8000 new vehicles and despite the huge bonus offered to sales staff and managers to improve sales of hybrids, the store sold a whopping total of sixteen hybrid cars in those nine years and nearly all of those were leases.
These thoughts came to mind earlier this week when having a conversation with friends about another ambitious prediction in tech news that, by 2020, over 90% of web traffic will be video rather than the text and image data of today.
Being jaded now by these types of predictions, I shared with them another related story, that just a couple of years earlier I had read a similarly optimistic prediction, that by 2020, few people would be texting and reading from their phones; instead, we would all be using Siri-like voice translators and listening to the replies of others through our cordless ear buds.
With the 2020 model year now only fifteen short months away, I realize that most of the auto manufacturing line equipment is currently tooling for that year’s production and my friends in engineering tell me that they are working from forecasts that fewer than 7% of GM vehicles sold in 2020 will be ordered with the hybrid powertrains.
With that fresh on my mind, I am sitting in the atrium lounge of the University of South Florida, surrounded by nearly a hundred of the youngest millennials and realized that they were all still texting from their phones and reading the responses. I will curb my enthusiasm for consumer technology adoption projections in the future….. I am starting to see how old guys become so cynical
The foundation article from back in 2012, here is the research on the state of fuel economy technology and the obstacles to adoption:
Continued Consumer Resistance to General Motors Hybrid Vehicle Technology – November 7, 2012
EPA policies that affect the economy become front page news in an election year and the hot topic for 2012 is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) revisions, requiring automakers to improve average automobile fuel economy from 29 mpg to 54.5 mpg over the next 13 years. Agreements to these revised fuel efficiency standards were concessions made by automakers during the industry bailouts of 2009.
In the backlash of that federal bailout, critics have been quick to fault American manufacturers for their lack of long-term planning. However, in defense of management strategy, the automakers have for decades been doing what profitable businesses do best, responding to consumer demand (Vlasic).
The press often suggests that domestic auto sales recovery will depend on the fuel economy of the products that manufacturers can provide. These critics assume that consumers make purchase decisions using primarily math and logic; but, those of us in the auto industry experience firsthand that purchase motives are more akin to purchasing fashions or artwork. To most Americans, their car is a part of their self-image, not just a tool that converts dollars into miles traveled.
Journalists such as News-Herald’s John Lasko write articles that with opening lines such as, “With gas prices hovering near $4 a gallon, many are opting to trade in their gas-guzzlers for more fuel-efficient vehicles.” With news headlines like those, it is easy for the public to conclude that the US automakers lack of sales was due to its heavy reliance on gas guzzling models. However, those assumptions are based on popular ideas that the domestic manufacturers previously lacked the capability to produce fuel-efficient vehicles. In their defense, the simple reality remains, the automakers must make their first priority to produce those vehicles that sell well in the domestic market.
The critics overlook the 3 million Chevrolet Chevettes that were produced between 1976 and 1987 or its domestic counterparts, the Plymouth Horizon and the Ford Fiesta that provided fuel efficiency equal to most economy cars on the market today. For example, the Chevrolet Chevette was for nearly a decade, the American flagship economy car, selling millions by providing a real world fuel economy of 25 city/ 30 hwy, or with a popular diesel engine option reaching 33 city/41 hwy. The Chevette was sold with a base price, that inflation adjusts to about $11,000 in today’s dollars and consistently surpassed the fuel economy ratings of it’s main Japanese competitor, the Toyota Corolla by nearly 2 mpg for nearly a decade (fueleconomy.gov).
Compare those cost and fuel efficiency ratings to today’s most economical products available in the US, the Korean made 2013 Hyundai Accent with an MSRP of $10,665 that is rated at 29 city/39 hwy. The comparison of these cars in the context of the 25 years of technology that evolved between them should dispel assumptions that Asian economy cars have enjoyed decades of superiority in fuel economy (fueleconomy.gov). However, in the American car market, every one of those fuel sipping economy cars was discontinued in the late 1980’s when sales dried up as the pendulum of automobile fashion swung toward a return of larger and more powerful transportation, with the introduction Sport Utility vehicles and the return of V8 powered high performance sedans.
By 1990, it became increasingly unfashionable to be seen in fuel-efficient cars, American auto style entered the age of the 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee, offering a taller ride height for a better visibility in traffic and providing the owner with a sense of safety and rugged capability. The Grand Cherokee became the benchmark to measure style popularity, marketed with an image of recreational outdoor travel and adventure rather than previous trend for economical commuter transport. These mid-sized all terrain Sport Utilities grew especially popular with female buyers in northern states, at the same time four-door 4×4 pickups became increasingly popular with young male buyers seeking that “Eddie Bauer” outdoorsy image.
Critics often ignore the strategic decisions that allocated research and development funding away from fuel economy and directed budgets to safety, performance and durability to meet the consumer demand curves. Over the past 15 years the average vehicle age alone has grown by a third to 10.8 years old with advancements in vehicle durability (USA Today). Additional progress that was made during that period to improve braking distances and implement crash avoidance technology reduced accident frequency and cut the percentage of crash fatalities in half. In an effort to appeal to consumer demands for more powerful accelerator pedals, 0-60 acceleration times have improved by over 40%. And to counter the reliability critics of the domestic cars from the 1980’s, the inflation adjusted annual maintenance costs have dropped by more than 80% (NADA.COM).
Today even after the industry collapse, American manufacturers once again dominate automobile industry technology development, General Motors again was ranked the 2011 No. 1 innovator in automotive patents by US patent board (Tuttle). However, consumer demand trends in automobiles are similar to those in fashion, with opposing trends recurring in 10-year cycles, such as style trends toward skinny jeans from bell bottoms and short carefully styled hair to today’s bushy headed natural hairstyles. Sociologists attribute 10-year style cycles to be dependent on the needs for generational self-image, as each generation makes fashion and identity statements to differentiate them from the previous generation.
Business Times writer Brad Tuttle suggests that the fuel economy trend that began in 08 will continue to gain momentum:
“A new True Car post traces the average miles-per-gallon rise among new cars sold
in the US… all of the top seven automakers posted dramatic year over year
increases in average miles per gallon. In 2011 the average new Ford got just 17.3
mpg compared with 22 mpg in February of 2012 … the rise comes primarily as a
result of Ford doubling sales of small cars such as the Fusion and Focus”
However, despite increases in economy cars sales, auto sales as a whole have risen, the demand is also increasing on 5-year-old full size SUV’s.
According to industry writer Nick Bunkley,
“Retail prices for five-year-old full size S.U.V.’s are 23 percent higher than a year ago
according to Edmunds.com, an automotive information Website. That is more than
double the average price increase of 11 percent for all five-year-old vehicles.”
One constant in the automobile industry, vehicle selection is an emotional decision more than it is an economic one. Customer buying motives first and foremost are influenced by how the vehicle makes them feel, a vehicle becomes one with the driver, it can allow them to feel bigger, more secure or more powerful. I recently encountered a perfect case that really defined the influence of self-identity on vehicle selection.
Carolyn, a 60-year-old widow and retired guidance counselor arrived at our Buick-GMC showroom in a well maintained, three-year-old, luxury four-wheel drive truck. Carolyn had gotten a letter from our used car department that high demand for trade-ins like her truck had currently driven trade-in values up thousands over the previous year. The letter encouraged her to consider upgrading soon, to take advantage of current trade in values for used 4×4’s.
The timing of the letter was perfect for Carolyn, since she had recently moved to Florida from the Midwest and no longer had the need for wintertime four-wheel drive; to further complicate matter the garage of her new condo also couldn’t accommodate the truck. She explained when she arrived, that she really wanted to reduce her fuel budget and downsize into one the new hybrid Buick Regal sedans she had been reading about in the newspapers, rated for twice the fuel economy of her truck.
Over the following week Carolyn test drove over a dozen of fuel-efficient sedans from ours and different dealerships including the Hybrid Regal that she initially planned to purchase. Despite our best efforts to persuade her to choose our last remaining hybrid, she instead opted to buy the high performance Regal T Type, performance sedan, that ironically provides an only a slight fuel economy advantage of 15% over the truck she was trading in and was priced thousands higher than the $28,000 hybrid version.
Carol admitted that when driving the cars rated highly for fuel efficiency she felt as if she had sacrificed the power that she was accustomed to and those low powered cars made her feel old and slow behind the wheel, she insisted that she “wasn’t ready to feel like an old lady toodling down the right lane, holding up traffic”. Carol’s time behind the wheel of the Regal Turbo made her feel young and put a smile on her face every time she pushed down on the accelerator pedal. For the sake of “feeling young” she was perfectly content to pay an extra $90 in monthly car payment for the high-performance engine and luxury options and disregard the $65 month in fuel savings that the hybrid version offered.
Think of the vehicle choices by comparing it to an airplane selection; imagine choosing between airplanes, where you could select a 2 seat Cessna that might make you feel like buzzing mosquito, or for another $150 a month, you could pilot the F-16 fighter jet or a Boeing 747 to work, ….to you, which of those options excites you? The difference it capability seems huge and imagine if the difference in increased fuel costs was only an additional $100 a month. The thrill of becoming something larger and more powerful and the status that comes with that ownership has an attraction beyond what can be measured in simple terms of transportation costs per mile. American buyers have consistently demonstrated that they are willing to sacrifice a larger part of their income to enjoy vehicles that provide them with excitement.
Current sedan trends are influenced by the fuel-efficient designs from Asian manufacturers, designed to handle the high taxes on Japanese gas and the shortage of open roads and parking space on the islands of Japan. Understanding the American tastes requires us to understand the differences in our driving habits and the luxuries of smooth, open roads that Americans can enjoy, foreign drivers are often limited in their ability to appreciate American tastes for size and horsepower.
However, in Australia, with road systems similar to the US, a huge market still exists for large SUV’s, trucks and big engine cars. A market that was penetrated in the 1990’s when many Japanese automakers began to design vehicles to cater to the American influenced market, with large gas guzzlers like the Nissan Armada, Toyota Sequoia and Honda Ridgeline ensured import survival during the SUV years, and most notably even those Japanese trucks and SUV’s suffer from slightly lower fuel economy ratings than the American SUV competitors.
It has been easy for the press to fault American automakers for their lack of vision in developing economy vehicles, and to blame management for not remaining competitive in fuel efficiency technology. However, despite almost a total lack of advertising dollars for large engine SUV’s, compounded by the handicaps of stale, aged-out designs and a decrease of sales incentives offered, the demand for large SUV’s is climbing back to nearly 2008 levels despite continued fuel cost nearing $4.
Over the past 30 years American consumers have voted with their wallets, fuel economy was considerably less important to them than size, safety, reliability and performance. The challenge that lies ahead is not to build smaller, less powerful cars as much as the need to direct energy-saving technology development at the powerful SUV’s and spirited sedans that consumers demand (nada.org).
Because for many Americans the automobile is more than transportation, it is a fashion decision as much as a financial decision, and many Americans have proven for decades that are perfectly willing to pay a premium to enjoy a few more smiles-per-gallon.
Bunkley, Nick. “As Car Owners Downsize, the Market Is Strong for Their Used S.U.V.’s.” New
York Times. 07 2012: n. page. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.
“Side By Side Economy Comparison.” fueleconomy.gov. US Environmental Protection Agency,
07 2012. Web. 7 Nov 2012.
Lasko, John. “Gas Prices Have Car Makers, Sellers, Buyers Looking at Fuel Efficiency.” The News
Herald. 30 2012: n. page. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.
. “Guidelines.” nada.com. National Automobile Dealers Association, 07 2012. Web. 7 Nov 2012.
Tuttle, Brad. “Even with $4 Gas, Few Drivers Choose Electric Cars – Or Even Hybrids.” Business
Time. 12 2012: n. page. Web. 7 Nov. 2012.
Vlasic, Bill. “U.S. Sets Higher Fuel Efficiency Standards.” New York Times. 28 2012: n. page. Web.
7 Nov. 2012.
“Our Cars are Getting Older, too: Average Age now 10.8 years.” USA Today. 01 2012: n. page.
Web. 7 Nov. 2012.