Gas prices are falling but hybrid production is not

Prices at the pump are falling, but that hasn't slowed production plans for hybrid and electric vehicles.

Despite the fact that sales of SUV and crossover utility vehicles are up 11.9 percent this year, while gas-electric hybrid sales are down 15 percent, according to the research firm Autodata, automakers are gearing up for greater electric, fuel-cell and hybrid vehicle production.

BMW has just announced it plans to sell a plug-in hybrid version of every major model in its lineup. Daimler is investing 100 million euros to expand battery production for electric vehicles. Toyota will soon begin sales in Japan of the Mirai, a hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle.

The Toyota Mirai
Yposhikazu Tsuno | AFP | Getty Images

On top of that, Tesla recently announced plans to construct a $5 billion gigafactory that will build up to 500,000 lithium-ion battery packs each year for electric vehicles manufactured by it and other automakers.

"Hybrids may be struggling a bit right now, but automakers are not changing their plans to build those vehicles," said Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Automotive Consulting.

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Here are three reasons automakers are ramping up their investments in green vehicles, even though the demand is not there right now.

Gas prices will eventually rebound

When Ford rolled the first aluminum F-Series off the line in Dearborn, Michigan, CEO Mark Fields was repeatedly asked if it was critical for the automaker to offer a dramatically more fuel-efficient pickup.

"We think the trend is clear," Fields said. "Over time, we believe gas prices around the world will continue moving higher. When that happens, we will have one of the most fuel-efficient trucks on the market."

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Fields isn't alone in his sentiment. CEO after CEO in the auto industry has said they are counting on higher gas prices eventually returning. It may not happen next month or next year, but at some point, they expect the world's growing demand for gasoline to push prices at the pump higher.

CAFÉ standards

Regardless of what happens with gas prices, U.S. automakers are locked into meeting a fleetwide average mileage of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That's a long way from where the industry is right now, at roughly 31 miles per gallon.

Keep in mind, not every vehicle needs to average 54.5 miles per gallon 11 years from now; but the overall fleet of vehicles being sold must meet that standard. That's where hybrid and electric vehicles come into play.

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The more models automakers offer, and the greater their fuel economy, the more it offsets the mass-market internal combustion cars, trucks and SUVs in a manufacturer's portfolio.

Emission, clean air standards

Around the world, cities and federal governments are pushing automakers to build cleaner burning, more efficient vehicles. It's all part of their efforts to curb or reduce pollution and smog. To meet tighter standards, automakers will need to show they have vehicles that run more efficiently.

"The pressure on automakers to meet tighter emission standards around the world is immense," Robinet said. "The companies know the quickest way to meet those standards is by offering more hybrids, which burn cleaner."

Biggest auto sellers: SUVs, crossovers & pickups
Biggest auto sellers: SUVs, crossovers & pickups

Despite a lag so far this year, the number of gas-electric hybrids sold worldwide is expected to skyrocket over the next two years, from 1.79 million this year to more than 2.29 million in 2016, according to a study by IHS. As for electric vehicles, the same report estimates global sales will more than double to a total of 702,000 by 2018.

Sure, compared with the overall global demand for new vehicles, hybrids and electric vehicles are still a relatively small percentage of sales. Here in the U.S., just 3.6 percent of the vehicles sold are hybrids or EVs.

But there's still a market out there looking for these vehicles—and that's not changing anytime soon.

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