Car Owners in the Driver's Seat

The hybrid wave that's taken car makers by surprise continues to astound the world with its vitality and its unexpected turns. Clearly, a growing number of Americans want cleaner, better cars.

"Outsiders" have long wanted a say about the kinds of cars produced in this country. But the industry's insiders -- car makers, the oil industry and the federal government -- are still firmly planted behind the wheel. But some outsiders have had at least limited success, not the least of whom are Buckminster Fuller, Preston Tucker, Ralph Nader, Paul MacCready, Amory Lovins and William McDonough. (These links are to their auto-related activities; all these visionaries also have excellent profiles at Wikipedia.)

We may be in the midst of what scientists call a "punctuated equilibrium" as the auto industry rapidly evolves. And catalyzing it are groups of outsiders, spearheaded by the legions of individual car buyers who've snapped up gas-electric hybrids in recent years and led to months-long waiting lists for the Toyota Prius. Some very recent developments in Toyotaland include:

  • Four self-described "middle-aged hybrid drivers" staged a two-day LeMans-style race to see how far they could drive a Prius on a tank of gasoline. Using "pulse and glide" techniques (as described at by Kip Munro), they got 110MPG. After an initial silence, Toyota found the good sense to applaud the group and send them goodies.

  • Toyota representatives asked by journalists about their reactions to Prius conversions began to sound increasingly open-minded. The pressure increased when they got criticism about the MPG of Lexus and Highlander hybrids. (See the CalCars News Archive.)

  • RAV4 EV owners and other electric vehicle advocates organized, rallied and worked for months to gain support from public officials. Their campaign succeeded: Toyota agreed to extend leases and allow lease buyouts for these cherished electric compact SUVs.

  • Attention to plug-in hybrids ratcheted up significantly as advocacy streams for environment, energy security and economic development met at an intersection called "record-high oil prices."

These breakthroughs wouldn't have happened if we weren't all so "plugged in." As interactive media have claimed turf alongside the top-down print and broadcast outlets that bloggers call "MSM" -- the Mainstream Media -- car culture has morphed.

Think back to the old pre-electronic media days. Car drivers who needed to get information, make buying decisions or vent their gripes, went to dealers. If they didn't get satisfaction, they contacted the company, or wrote letters to local editors.

Along came email, then complex car websites. Now half of all car buyers start their shopping online. And sites like blend information, blogs and a user-community. Tens of thousands of hybrid car owners frequent online water coolers like Through these new channels, they've transferred their loyalty from car makers and dealers to fellow drivers, wherever they find them. They connect online to compare what they like and don't like -- and describe their feature/performance wish lists.

Ironically, their conversations get magnified as the new alternative channels now shape the institutions they were trying to supplant.

First, we know car companies and auto analysts monitor online communities -- and why not? The companies harvest immediate feedback and cumulative market research. While not statistically valid, it's free -- and of incalculable value.

Second, the MSM watch the Internet closely, and their broadcast megaphones amplify the stories that bubble up. In the political realm, we saw blogs' extensive impact on the '04 Presidential campaign. In the automotive world, journalists now routinely mine the blogs and the groups for the latest trends.

PRIUS+ conversions incubated in these communities, among hybrid fans who got excited about the Prius, discovered the EV button, and came together in an open-source style Conversion Discussion Group. Expertise and volunteer reinforcements arrived from the online communities of electric vehicle owners and carbon-reduction advocates.

Now CalCars is exploring the real possibility we can harness all this interest and momentum to incentivize an automaker to build PHEVs (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles). Like a concept car going into production, we're poised to expand our range and capabilities. I expect others will come up with surprising campaigns.

Our combined communities have enormous potential power. We haven't yet seen what they're capable of. So online hybrid fans, buckle up for a wild adventure. As Bette Davis said in 1950's All About Eve, "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night."

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