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Hybrid Consumer Vehicles: Where on the S-Curve?
For this case study, I have selected the hybrid car as the technology of interest. Hybrid cars have been a steady presence in the consumer auto market since the early 2000s. Toyota's Prius is the best-known example and has the largest market share, which is set to expand into other market niches with the development of subcompact and hatch/crossover versions of the Prius. Although Toyota has made sweeping claims about the amount of research money they spend (specifically, safety research) they do not report specifically how much of their R&D budget is devoted to innovation and how much to safety and design refinements. A thorough analysis by Booz Allen & Hamilton on the relationship between R&D spending and market performance shows that gross measures of research spending have no predictive power over market share or sales (Jaruzelski, Dehoff, & Bordia, 2004). Especially in the automotive industry, companies who are above the median in sales volume spend close to the same percent of their budget on research as those who are below the median sales volume. So in terms of effort indicators, research dollars or person-hours spent on development seems a poor metric to plot against sales in order to see the customary S-curve of technological performance. Instead, I have plotted hybrid car adoption rates against time - representing the car companies' effort towards "hanging in there" with a good idea even when the market seemed ready to give up on the hybrid vehicle.
Figure 1. Hybrid Car Sales per Year, 1999-2009.
(Numbers from U.S. Department of Energy, 2010)
In the figure above, I have plotted hybrid car sales for the years 1999-2009, per year. For the years 1999-2004, the number of hybrid vehicles barely made a dent in overall volume - public demand had not yet reached a noticeable height, and the popularization of "green living" was still a few years away. Assuming that hybrid car sales will follow the S-curve, I have projected the graph out through 2019, when sales should dwindle owing to the emergence of a new technology.
Figure 2. Projected Figures for Hybrid Sales, 1999-2019.
However, mathematically we are still on the locally linear rise in the middle of the S-curve. This means that the key disruption, or turning point, has not happened yet, and we cannot predict when it will arrive if sales figures remain flat for the next few years. No technology exists in a vacuum, and it is certainly possible that rising gas prices combined with the further mainstreaming of the green lifestyle will make the growth curve even steeper.
3. The auto industry is subject to several natural technological limits: material resource availability, consumer demand, and energy efficiency. The energy efficiency of the battery system that popular hybrid engines require did not become viable in the consumer market until the late 1990s. Many hybrid or electric vehicles are still hampered by the weight and size of the batteries they must have onboard in order to provide power. For example, the Tesla roadster's battery pack weighs 1,000lbs and takes 3.5 hours for a full recharge (Elfalan, 2008). Hybrid vehicles "solve" the problem of weighty batteries and long charge time by providing a gas engine to supplement the batteries (although in most driving conditions this results in the batteries supplementing the gas engine) and using a braking system that charges the batteries through auxiliary capacitors. Consumer demand is a natural limit especially because of the ideological divide in the U.S., the single country in which most cars are purchased. Political and cultural differences hold between residents of "red states" and "blue states" that are reflected in behavioral differences. Purchases make up some of this behavior. Since a large part of the hybrid car's appeal is its partial independence from nonrenewable fossil fuels, and fossil fuels are cited as a major contributor to human-made global warming, hybrid cars are a natural match for politically progressive consumers. However, the technology's identification with scientific claims about global warming may limit its ability to attain market penetration in conservative regions of the U.S., where conservative identity is telegraphed by disbelief that global warming (a) exists, and (b) is of human origin (Kanazawa, 2010). The issue of material resource availability applies to both petroleum and battery materials, though much…[continue]
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