x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Air Bag: Public needs a push to embrace hybrid cars

People won't fork out more money for a cleaner car when they can save a bit of cash on less expensive conventional models, especially when fuel prices aren't crippling.

Oh, I just love getting mail, don't you? Especially something in the actual post - I'm still sifting through Christmas and birthday cards arriving at my office. Thanks, Mom.

Well, e-mails are good, too, depending on the content. In fact, I've had quite a few offers in the past little while from people needing business partners to get cash out of their respective countries; they all sound quite lucrative and I'm considering my options.

But I especially like to hear from our readers, which is confirmation that we actually do have readers - always encouraging. And last week, we had a note from Tom Moloughney, talking about our recent road test of the BMW ActiveHybrid 7. In the test, David Booth says the added cost - more than Dh100,000 over a petrol-powered 750Li - isn't worth the savings in fuel offered by the hybrid. Moloughney, however, counters that it is worth it, given we should be doing anything we can to be more environmentally friendly.

That's a good point. Moloughney goes on to say that car makers should be building more of these hybrids and other more fuel-efficient cars because, if they did, the public would buy them.

Ah, but there I have to respectfully disagree with him, to a point. Yes, there will always be those who put the Earth first over their own conveniences and desires, and they will be the ones who will buy the first Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts when they become available.

However, unlike Mr Moloughney, I don't have the same bright outlook on the rest of humanity as he does (perhaps its a cynicism that gets hammered into your brain the longer you stay in journalism).

Let's face it: people won't fork out more money for a cleaner car when they can save a bit of cash on less expensive conventional models, especially when fuel prices aren't crippling. You'll see it in trends across the world: wherever petrol can be had cheaply, people drive larger vehicles. It's the places where fuel costs rival home mortgages that you'll find strong sales of Kia Picantos and diesel Golfs. It's a fact.

Let's look here at home: Porsche debuted its Cayenne S Hybrid to the UAE in July; at Dh310,000, it's just Dh19,000 more than the regular, petrol-powered Cayenne S. You know how many of these hybrids were sold in this country since then? Three. And BMW, which has its ActiveHybrid 7 and ActiveHybrid X6 available here, sold just 33 in total all of last year.

A while ago, I had a chat with Phil Horton, the former head of the brand in the Middle East who is now off to greener pastures. He said BMW was offering hybrid technology in its higher-model cars rather than its lower-end, simply because the added cost could be absorbed easier in the top markets. Further sales would eventually bring down that cost; yet, these models aren't catching on out here.

No real surprise, at least to me: with fuel costing up to a quarter of what it does than other markets around the world, what's the incentive for people here to care? Well, I guess three Porsche lovers care enough, anyway.

I have said it before, and I'll say it again: without government intervention, ie fuel taxes and incentives for buying more efficient vehicles, this whole electric car thing just won't take off in the short term. The car companies, such as BMW as mentioned in the letter, are making more-fuel-efficient models already, but you can't expect them to drop the prices and lose money simply to help the environment.

The onus lies with the consumer, whether he wants to or not.