In October, Toyota announced that it had sold over two million Prius hybrids globally since it introduced the vehicle in 1997. Remarking on the announcement, Jalopnik (an automotive blog owned by Gawker) compared the Prius sales to U.S. truck sales during the same period. Even though the comparison was between Prius global sales and truck sales only in the United States, as you might expect, the truck sales beat Prius sales by a considerable amount - about 17x.
However, a few things were odd about Jalopnik's use of data: First, comparing a single vehicle against an entire vehicle category. Second, comparing global sales against U.S. sales. Third, comparing cumulative sales from 1997-2010, since the Prius was only introduced to the United States in 2000, while trucks were an already existing, well established and popular vehicle category with a long head start. While the data isn’t wrong, it tells a misleading and incomplete story. Since Trucks and Hybrids carry a certain cultural symbolism in the United States, I was curious about the full data behind these categories. I felt that there would be some better ways normalize and express the information for a fairer comparison of the categories, and to see if there were any emerging trends that would become visible. I spent some time digging in to the sources that Jalopnik linked to in their post, and found some others to piece together information that was missing (all sources are listed at the bottom of this post).
Since 2010 isn’t over yet, and since Hybrid vehicles weren’t introduced to the United States until 1999 (the Honda Insight), I focused on 1999 to 2009 instead of 2007-2010. I also focused on U.S. sales instead of global sales. Above to the left (in red) is the information graphic that Jalopnik posted to compare the Prius against trucks. To the right is a normalized version, comparing all cumulative Hybrid sales in the U.S. against cumulative Truck sales in the U.S. From both charts, it would still appear that Hybrids are really far behind.
But that makes sense; only 17 hybrid vehicles (the Honda Insight) were sold in the United States in 1999. I thought it would be more telling to look at year over year sales over the period of 1999 through 2009, instead of the total cumulative sales, to see the rate of growth and/or decline in the Truck and Hybrid categories. In addition to the category comparison, I also overlaid the sales for the most popular vehicle in each of the two categories: the Ford F-Series and the Toyota Prius. For some cultural context, I included the average gas prices, and the Dow Jones and NASDAQ indexes from that period. Since we’ve gone through two recessions over the past ten years, I wondered how the category purchasing trends related to trends in the economy.
A story starts to appear. Even though trucks sales do still far outnumber Hybrid sales (and the cumulative total means there are far more trucks on the road than hybrids), we can see that both categories show significant purchase trends. Yearly truck sales have decreased by 57% since 2009, or, an average of -8.2% every year. In the same period, Hybrid sales in the United States have increased by an impressive 1,707,376%, or 165% each year. As the trends relate to the economy, neither category was affected much by the dot-bust recession from 2000-2002. Both categories show significant trending from 2003-2007, during which the U.S. average gas price rose sharply. During the recession of the last two years (during which gas prices dropped), Hybrids purchasing leveled off, while Truck purchases dropped drastically.
To concentrate on the significant change in purchases in the last decade, I made another graphic that focuses on just 1999 and 2009. I also looked in to the percentage of total vehicle market share for the two categories. The relative vehicle market share of trucks has decreased by 3%, down to 16% of the total market. Hybrids have grown from 0.0001% of the market in 1999, to 2.8% in 2009.
So what does all this mean? While the original Jalopnik data makes it clear that there are far more trucks on the road in the United States (and likely will be for a long time), the number of Hybrids being purchased every year is increasing rapidly, while the number of Trucks being purchased in the U.S. has declined considerably. If both trends were to continue at their current rates, the number of Hybrids and Trucks purchased would be equal by 2016. As gas prices have started to rise again over the last couple years and as more Electric and Hybrid vehicle models are made available, the iconic Truck may not be the most popular vehicle in the U.S.A. for much longer.
Full disclosure, I am a Prius owner. The purpose of this post is purely to get a more accurate picture of truck vs hybrid buying trends in the U.S., not to debate the relative fuel-efficiency, cost, or environmental merits between Trucks and Hybrids.