Popularity of hybrid vehicles picks up

Premier Taxi added Toyota Prius hybrid cabs to its fleet in the middle of last year. Observers cite various reasons for the rising popularity of hybrid vehicles but the single biggest motivator may well have been pump prices.
Premier Taxi added Toyota Prius hybrid cabs to its fleet in the middle of last year. Observers cite various reasons for the rising popularity of hybrid vehicles but the single biggest motivator may well have been pump prices.PHOTO: PREMIER TAXI

Number of petrol-electric cars and taxis has risen sharply in last 5 years

Hybrid vehicles, which run on battery power as well as fuel, are getting popular with motorists and cabbies alike.

In the last five years, the number of petrol-electric hybrid passenger cars has doubled to about 5,700, while hybrid taxis have gone from just four in 2009 to around 1,500 now, said the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

Observers cite various reasons for the sharp uptake - such as the availability of more models and a growing awareness among end- users - but the single biggest motivator may well have been pump prices.

The start of the trend coincides with the sharp and steady rise in pump prices. From less than $1.60 per litre in 2009, the cheapest 92-octane petrol went past $2.20 last year before settling to $1.96 in recent weeks. Seeing how a Toyota Prius C hybrid is nearly 40 per cent more fuel-efficient than a Toyota Vios, the savings offered by the Prius would more than offset the rise in pump prices from 2009 to last year.

But fuel savings is not the only reason why procurement manager L.C. Ng, 58, bought a Toyota Prius five years ago.

"It's a wonderful car - very smooth and very quiet," he said.

"So quiet in fact that I have to be extra careful in carparks, because people are not aware that there's a car behind them."

The fuel economy - of 19km per litre - or double that of his previous car, does not hurt either, he said.

Cabby Yong Yoong Siong, 57, who drives a Toyota Prius from Prime Taxis, cited almost the same reasons. "I get about 22km per litre," he said. "The (diesel) Hyundai Sonata I once drove managed 9km to 10km per litre. Even though diesel is cheaper, the Sonata would still be costlier to run."

He added that the Prius is quieter and more comfortable than a diesel cab.

The incentive for taxi companies is twofold: they save on annual diesel tax of about $5,000 per cab; and they enjoy a carbon rebate of up to $30,000 per cab.

Prime Taxis was the first to roll out hybrid cabs in 2009. But the firm with the largest fleet of such taxis is SMRT. It has about 1,000 hybrid cabs, which make up one-third of its fleet. By next March, it aims to add 300 more.

Despite the surge in popularity, hybrids still make up a small percentage of the total vehicle population. Figures from LTA show the number of petrol-electric models represents 0.9 and 5.3 per cent of cars and cabs here, respectively. Still, those numbers are a big rise over the 0.46 and 0.02 per cent of their respective cohorts in 2009.

Going by how the price gap between hybrid and conventional vehicles has narrowed, observers believe hybrids will continue to grow in popularity. For instance, a Toyota Prius C is priced around $120,000, just 8 per cent more than a Toyota Vios. Back in 2009, a Toyota Prius (the smaller Prius C was not available then) was 37 per cent costlier than a similar- sized Toyota Corolla.

SIM University adjunct professor Chong Chee Leong, who teaches sustainability, said the adoption of hybrid cars is a development in the right direction, but one that has been quite slow.

"We need substantial converts for the envisaged environmental impacts to be realised," he said.

christan@sph.com.sg