Move to fuel-efficiency is a journey too far for blase HK drivers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 February, 2006, 12:00am

YOU MAY HAVE noticed the lament we published on the front of our City section yesterday that Hong Kong drivers just do not seem to be interested in buying fuel-efficient hybrid cars.

It seems odd. We now have the highest fuel prices in the entire world and they have risen much faster than the overall level of prices on the consumer price index over the past eight years. This trend shows every sign of continuing.

We now also have a study by the Environmental Protection Department that says the government could save $22 million out of the $92 million annual fuel bill for its fleet of cars by shifting to hybrid vehicles. It certainly seems an opportune time for a more general move to hybrids in this town. How could it be that there is so little interest?

I was pondering this question yesterday when an answer to it happened to drop on to my lap through an e-mail from pollster ACNielsen, which recently conducted a survey across the world on the degree to which people believe they have been affected by higher fuel prices and what they are doing about it. The first big question was the obvious one - Are the increases in the prices of fuel affecting you in any way? The possible answers were: (1) Yes, affecting me a lot; (2) Yes, affecting me somewhat; and (3) No, not affecting me.

The bar chart shows you a ranking across Asia of the percentage of respondents in each economy who chose that last answer. In Hong Kong's case it was almost half, by far the greatest proportion in all of Asia. The biggest reason that we do not show much interest in hybrids is that we are not worried about rising fuel costs.

There is a caveat to be made about this, however. The question was asked of all respondents, whether or not they own cars, and Hong Kong also has easily the lowest rate of car ownership in Asia.

A contributing reason is perhaps that we have long suffered from high fuel prices because about half of what we pay at the pump goes to the government in fuel duties. These duties have not risen recently and thus the overall price of fuel has perhaps not risen as much in percentage terms as in other countries.

But ACNielsen then selected only car owners for answers to a follow-on question - What impact, if any, have higher fuel prices had on your household's driving habits?

Buying a more fuel-efficient vehicle was well down the list in Hong Kong's case. Ahead of it came: (1) Using public transport more; (2) Using my vehicle less; (3) Cutting down on non-essential living expenses; (4) Trying to combine errands or trips; and (5) car-pooling.

On that answer of using public transport more, Hong Kong was again well up on the Asian ratings, as the second bar chart shows. Only in South Korea was that answer selected more often than it was here. No surprise in Korea, given that Koreans are given little option but to buy Korean-made cars.

But, of course, the obvious reason that the answer was so prominent in Hong Kong's case is that we have probably the best public transport system in all of Asia. It is an easy alternative choice to cars here and the obvious reason that car ownership rates can be so low in a city so wealthy, although they might be lower yet if public transport operators did not increasingly inflict abominations like bus television on us.

This answer to the survey does not entirely gel with the facts, however. Private car ownership is still rising by about 2 per cent a year in Hong Kong and the figures suggest that the number of public transport journeys taken yearly per head of population is in decline. Must be that bus television.

The major finding of this survey remains clear, however. Higher fuel prices are not enough to push us into buying fuel-efficient cars as we are not particularly worried by higher fuel prices in the first place. Odd, perhaps, but that seems to be the way it is.