Last week it was reported that year-over-year sales for advanced-technology vehicles increased in the first quarter by nearly two-to-one compared to conventional internal combustion vehicles.

To be more precise, electric and hybrid vehicle sales increased 37.2 percent from January through March compared to the same period in 2010. In contrast, sales for internal combustion engine (ICE) cars and trucks rose 20.2 percent.

As documented by, new hybrid and electric vehicle models added 10 percent to the advanced-tech category. These included the Lincoln MKZ, Honda CR-Z, Lexus CT 200h, VW Touareg, Chevrolet Volt, and Nissan LEAF.

Because the Volt is being rolled out slowly, its sales contributed only a sliver toward the aggregate numbers. On a percentage basis, however, starting with just over zero sales, and selling 1,210 Volts in three months is at least something, and more significantly, many people are showing strong interest for the deliberately limited Volt. Last week GM also said as much.

Chevrolet's advanced-tech car is just starting to make a dent in sales statistics. Numerous accolades already cannot hurt its future sales potential. The Motor Trend Car of the Year is shown at the GM Aerodynamics Lab at the Warren Tech Center facility.

“Demand for the product is very, very high,” said vehicle line director for the Chevrolet Volt, Tony Posawatz, at a conference in New York. Consumers “can’t get enough of them.”

Analysts have pinned a few causes for advanced-technology vehicles sales, with the number-one reason being escalating fuel prices.

Edmunds noted the national average price for regular gasoline at the end of March was 82 cents higher than a year prior. This jump from $2.80 per gallon to $3.62 is more than 25 percent, and no doubt shifted attitudes among car buyers.

The most recent quarter's advanced-tech numbers do not beat the 2007 hybrid sales spike, however, when U.S. gas prices topped $3 per gallon for the first time. And compared to overall ICE sales, they remain a small minority.

Give it time though, said analysts. Some expect regular gasoline will be $5-per-gallon in many U.S. regions by year’s end, and more increases – if not also new records – in advanced-tech vehicle sales are thus predicted.

Beyond oil prices, other factors affecting supply and demand are believed responsible for increased advanced-tech sales.

As for supply, the aforementioned new models were responsible for a tenth of the advanced-tech surge. "Having nearly a dozen new models to choose from is certainly helping hybrids appeal to a broader audience than in the past," said Edmunds sales analyst Ivan Drury.

Americans are getting the message about finding long-term solutions for diminishing oil supplies, developing national self-reliance, and doing it in ways that don't harm the environment overly much.

As for demand, the Toyota Prius – which also just set new U.S. and global sales records – its March sales spiked when supply was threatened after the Japan earthquake March 11. That car, having been on the U.S. market since 2000, has a huge head start in its popularity, and accounted for the majority of advanced-tech vehicle sales.

By the Numbers
Advanced Technology Vehicle Sales by Manufacturer
1st Quarter 2011 - 1st Quarter 2010 - Change
BMW: 94 - 64 - 46.8 percent
Ford: 7,704 - 7,047 - 9.3 percent
GM: 2,323 - 1,585 - 46.6 percent
Honda: 11,354 - 6,160 - 84.3 percent
Mercedes-Benz: 110 - 458 - <75.9 percent>
Nissan: 1,728 - 2,072 - <16.6 percent>
Porsche: 432 - 0 - NA
Toyota: 54,609 - 39,861 - 37 percent
VW: 169 - 0 - NA
All Advanced-Tech Vehicles: 78,523 - 57,247 - 37.2 percent

Unknown at this stage is whether advanced tech vehicle sales would continue to increase if gas prices were to stabilize.

"We're seeing the same pattern in buyer behavior that we saw when gas prices last hit record highs in 2008," said sales analyst Ivan Drury.

After the most recent time prices seemed more stable for a while, hybrid sales slowed down. So, would they slow down again if rising gas prices again seemed to taper off or decline? No one knows.

Monthly Advanced-Tech Sales by Manufacturer
March 2011 - February 2011 - March 2010
BMW: 13 -15 - 0
Ford: 3,276 - 2,569 - 3,050
GM: 1,006 - 556 - 640
Honda: 4,908 - 3,345 - 2,231
Mercedes-Benz: 57 - 39 - 0
Nissan: 843 - 433 - 394
Porsche: 114 - 140 - 0
Toyota: 24,739 - 16,461 - 16,714
VW: 44 - 41 - 0.
All hybrids: 35,000 - 23,678 - 23,029

Things are changing by degrees though, particularly among the cars themselves. This year Edmunds re-named its reporting criteria to include the Volt and LEAF. The category of “hybrids” was no longer adequate, and became “advanced technology.”

While still a small portion of the total, more Americans are looking to park advanced-tech cars at their homes. The trend will continue. The question is how fast will it?

Between the Volt and LEAF, the Chevrolet is definitely enjoying a more robust start, but both are expected to increase their sales.

A third, broader driving factor is also helping the Volt, LEAF, and all advanced-technology vehicles: Middle East conflicts, an increased focus on need for American energy independence, and potential oil shortages.

All this said, old habits in America appear to be dying hard. Less-efficient vehicles are still the dominant seller in the overall growing U.S. auto market.

Although hybrid and electric vehicle sales did beat them, their actual numbers were only 78,523 vehicles sold. Thus, advanced-technology vehicles represented just 2.5 percent of first-quarter sales compared to 3.1 million traditional cars and light trucks sold in the same period.

Sources: Edmunds , Detroit News