Government must offer better incentives to boost local sales
The response from the public to the hybrid cars has skyrocketed beyond all expectations. The Toyota Prius, the first hybrid car to enter the market, in 1997, has recorded 200,000 sales worldwide. While this may not be impressive in comparison to other, conventional, car sales, it is a very encouraging sign. According to Miltiadis Tsoskounoglou, director of the Department of Environmental Protection and Technology for Toyota Hellas, projections for European sales in 2004 were met and surpassed, from 5,000 units to a final tally of 7,500 units. Similar interest has been expressed for hybrid cars by other manufacturers. In Greece, however, we are still at the phase of getting to know the technology. Following successful sales abroad and an extensive advertising campaign by hybrid car manufacturers, the Greek public is only just beginning to show an interest in learning more about this technology. But scant sales show that they are still looking around, unwilling to make a commitment, while the only models available in the local market are the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic IMA (Integrated Motor Assist). Despite the fact of the low market penetration of hybrid cars, they have succeeded in winning over avid fans, among them Deputy Environment and Public Works Minister Stavros Kaloyiannis. «I drive a hybrid car and I am very pleased with it,» he says. «It is very pleasant to drive, is quiet and has very few emissions, since it burns very little petrol, especially in traffic. At the same time, it is very functional, a classic family car, spacious and fully equipped.» The deputy minister acquired his hybrid car when the ministry was supplied with 10 vehicles a few months ago through a public tender. The first evaluations have been very positive indeed. But why aren’t hybrid cars seeing market success? What is the problem, other than the lack of information? The first problem is their price, as hybrid cars cost some 35-40 percent more than conventional cars in the same category – not, of course, that they belong in the same category, because they are very different on many levels. The incentives provided by the government, furthermore, such as exemption from import duties and road tax, are insufficient. Another major problem is that many drivers mistakenly believe that hybrid cars cannot perform as well as conventional cars. A salesman specializing in the Honda Civic IMA put it in a nutshell: «Greeks are more interested in speed than in the climate. As far as the cost is concerned, they are looking at the short-term and not the long-term gains that come from reduced petrol consumption. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the ice seems to be breaking gradually.» The big question, however, is: If hybrid cars can contribute to the fight against smog in Athens and other cities, then why aren’t they supported with more economic exemptions and why don’t public services set the example by replacing their fleets with hybrid cars? Kaloyiannis says that his ministry is very much in favor of such measures. Unfortunately, it is not up to the Ministry of the Environment and Public Works to draw up such legislation. However, it may be. The government and civil service will soon have to face this new technology, especially as almost all large car manufacturers are set to launch their own hybrid car models on the market. Indeed, the car industry is already applying the technology to very demanding markets, such as jeeps and sports cars, as the Ford Escape Hybrid and the Lexus RX 400 demonstrate. Toyota’s hybrid model even has three electric engines and one petrol engine. Some criticism has been leveled at manufacturers for this, as they are not launching small hybrid models, which would be more effective in cities. However, the reason that manufacturers are not yet producing small hybrid cars is that the existing technology does not allow them to reduce the size of the equipment, as well as the fact that at the onset, hybrid cars were aimed at the American car market where the models are traditionally large in size. It is certain that if small hybrid cars were available in markets like Greece, they would be much more in demand.