Local car dealer Rob Swafford says there are many opportunities in the market for alternative fuel cars, but consumers will pay for it.
Swafford spoke to members of the Richmond Kiwanis Club earlier this week about the market place and future of alternative fuel vehicles. It was the final presentation of a month-long focus on energy by the club.
Swafford said it isn’t new to anyone that the new car market has been suffering over the last several years. He said the decline began right after 9/11 and a series of events since then has led to declining sales and closing car plants across the country.
Earlier this year, General Motors shut down a plant on the eastern side of the state and Ford Motor Company in Claycomo has shut down several shifts at times over the last year including this past week.
Swafford said all of the car manufacturers are looking for the answers, but no one has really definitively stepped forward.
“The buzz right now is the (GM Volt, an all-electric car that is in the planning stages.) Next week it may be a hydrogen car,” Swafford said. “We’re living in an age where the industry is in a real turmoil and there are so many options in front of us no one has emerged yet with the alterative that we may all come to know as the norm 25 years from now.”
Swafford said the main problem is infrastructure. He said much of the technology to get these vehicles running is in place, however, for instance there are not that many places to fill up with natural gas like some prototype vehicles do.
“If you wanted to go to Springfield, where would you fill up on the way?” he asked. “Would you call Empire Gas tonight and say ‘Hey can you get me a spicket in my garage so I can fill up my car with natural gas?’ They would probably say ‘Well we have someone in a department working on that, let me get back with you.’”
Swafford said car manufacturers are doing a good job of getting the idea in the minds of consumers when they roll out prototype vehicles. Swafford said there is a six to eight month wait at his dealership if someone wants a hybrid vehicle such as the Ford Escape. He said manufacturers create a buzz, but right now the market cannot deliver.
“These companies are becoming more and more savvy on ‘How do you spoil the bad news?’” he said. “We as the public see that and say, ‘Well, I can run down to my dealership and I can order one,’ where realistically it’s a prototype. They’re doing a better job of telling the public that we’re working on these things, but the reality is bringing them to the market takes years to develop and lots of money.”
Swafford said the research and development that goes into these vehicles costs manufacturers a lot of money and sometimes the results have bad timing. He said GM is doing a good job of marketing the Cadillac SUV, but are people buying them he asks.
“These hybrids that come out in large SUVs were planned five years ago,” he said. “Is the market at large SUVs this year? Not at all. Does that company miss the mark? That’s the volatility and reality in this market.”
Swafford said, ultimately the market has to drive the demand for alternative fuel vehicles. If the demand goes away, manufacturers will drop the research plans.
“Consumer choice, I think, is going to play a lot if price of oil goes down,” he said. “Probably a lot of these ideas are going to just dry up and blow away just like they did in the 70s into the 80s.”
Photo: Ford Motor Company is now using synthetic materials in some of their vehicles now. Left, foam that is used in the car seats of the new Ford Mustang is made from oil that comes from soybeans. Right, Ford is now making plastic from corn that is in turn used to make cloth that will be used in the seating of future vehicles. (Photo by Dennis Sharkey/The Daily News)