President Barack Obama’s administration, which set a goal of buying only alternative-technology vehicles for its fleet by 2015, cut purchases of hybrid and electric models by one-third last year and bought mostly Asian brands.
About 54 percent of the 1,801 alt-fuel vehicles purchased by U.S. government agencies last year were built by Hyundai Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Honda Motor Co., according to data obtained under a Freedom of Information request from the U.S. General Services Administration, which coordinates most vehicle purchases.
The Korean-made hybrid version of the Hyundai Sonata unseated Ford Motor Co.’s Fusion hybrid as the top-selling alternative-technology vehicle purchased for the federal fleet. U.S. hybrid purchases in previous years were made almost exclusively from domestic automakers.
The figures show how fitfully the U.S. -- even the government -- is moving toward alternative-fuel vehicles. They also indicate the head start that foreign-owned companies have in the segment, at least for now.
“The government needs to support a broad base of companies producing alternative vehicles because if they talk the talk, they need to walk the walk,” said Brett Smith, an alternative-vehicle analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “They want there to be a full range of options. In the future, there should be more availability of models built in the U.S.”
Green-car purchases by the government fell for the third year in a row. The Obama administration bought about 8,139 alternative technology vehicles in 2009 and 6,467 in 2010, when economic-stimulus spending fueled $300 million of fuel-efficient vehicle purchases for the federal fleet. As the stimulus money expired, purchases fell to 2,645 in fiscal 2011.
GSA purchases of hybrid and electric models fell 32 percent in fiscal 2012 to about 3.6 percent of the 50,114 vehicles purchased for federal agencies. The agency, which coordinates about two thirds of U.S. government vehicle buying, cut total car and truck purchases by 8.6 percent for fiscal 2012.
The same data showed that General Motors Co. surpassed Ford in U.S. government sales last year for the first time since before the 2009 bailouts of GM and the predecessor to Chrysler Group LLC.
Obama has touted twin goals of buying only alternative-fuel vehicles for the U.S. fleet by 2015 and getting 1 million electric vehicles on the country’s roads by that year. Current forecasts are well short of 1 million by 2015, without including hybrids.
RP Automotive, owned by Roger Penske, Jr., the son of dealership owner and racing legend Roger Penske, sold the GSA all 996 foreign alternative-technology vehicles purchased last year, according to the data.
“We try to fill a niche where the domestic models aren’t able to fill it,” said Roy Durham, corporate fleet director for RP Automotive in West Covina, California.
The Obama administration is shrinking the federal vehicle fleet and puts purchases up for bid every year, said Mafara Hobson, a GSA spokeswoman.
“This results in changes to which manufacturer provides the lowest pricing for a particular vehicle class,” she said.
Many domestic hybrid models were less available in 2012 than in the previous year, Durham said in an interview. This is the third year RP Automotive has sold alternative-technology vehicles to the U.S. government, he said.
“It’s all the roll of the dice,” Durham said. “In 2013, they may buy none or they may by 1,000.”
Foreign brands dominate total U.S. sales of alternative technology vehicles, led by the Toyota Prius liftback model, according to data compiled by Alan Baum, principal of auto-industry researcher Baum & Associates in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
Toyota’s Camry model was the second most popular, followed by the Prius V and Prius C models, Baum said. The Sonata was fifth, followed by the Lexus CT200h. The highest-ranking U.S. model was the Chevrolet Malibu at seventh, followed by the Fusion.
The government’s purchasing decisions are probably as much about availability as anything else, Baum said. Ford’s newest hybrid Fusion and a new C-Max didn’t start selling in volume until later in the fiscal year, he said.
“The general consumer certainly doesn’t have any difficulty buying foreign models,” he said.
The GSA purchases in fiscal 2012 included 904 Sonata hybrids, followed by 372 Fusion hybrids, with General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric model accounting for 163 purchases. The Sonata purchases represented 5.1 percent of the hybrid’s model’s U.S. sales for 2012.
Hyundai, South Korea’s largest automaker, manufactures the gasoline version of the Sonata in Montgomery, Alabama.
The GSA purchased about 300 other hybrids from GM and Ford as well as five Toyota Prius hybrids and three of Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV electric car. The GSA also reported buying 49 Honda Civics powered by compressed natural gas that are built in Greensburg, Indiana. It’s the only CNG-powered model for sale in the U.S., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Total U.S. sales of electric and plug-in vehicles totaled about 53,172 last year and may reach 200,000 by 2015, Baum said.
Availability of models will improve as the U.S. auto industry expands its offering of 18 electric and plug-in car and truck models last year to 28 this year and 56 by 2015, Baum said. His previous research helped Obama set his 2009 goal of 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, which he now says looks unlikely.
Hybrid electric models that use a battery to supplement a gasoline engine in some manner may rise to 680,000 in 2015 from 434,498 last year, he said.
In 2011, the most-recent data available, the U.S. government’s gasoline use rose to a 26-year high, increasing 2.3 percent to 52.5 trillion British thermal units, according to data compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Obama has said he wants to reduce U.S. oil imports, saying promoting greener vehicles is part of that strategy. Gasoline usage has risen each year of Obama’s presidency, according to EIA data.