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Americans Are Finally Falling In Love With Hybrids — Good Sign For EVs Or Disaster?

Sales of ordinary hybrids are exploding. Should we be happy about that?

When the Toyota Prius first came out in 1997, Americans yawned. BOR-ing! A Prius was something only Al Gore and his lefty, liberal, tree-hugging friends would drive, not something that red-blooded, hairy-chested, born in the USA gearheads wanted in their driveway. Gradually, the idea of driving an efficient car began to take hold in the American psyche as Toyota expanded its Synergy Drive hybrid powertrains to its bread and butter Corolla and Carry models and then started putting them in various Lexus models as well.

Almost 25 years later, Americans have embraced hybrids. According to the Washington Post, hybrid sales have grown faster than battery electric vehicle sales over the past two years. At Hudson Hyundai in New Jersey, hybrids are selling like spliffs at a Grateful Dead concert. Salesperson Alicia Mandonais says, “The hybrids really go first. I have at least three customers waiting.”

Hyundai’s hybrid sales have been strong lately. In the past year, the company began offering three of its more popular models — the Tucson, Santa Fe, and Elantra — with a hybrid option, and sales exploded. From January through July 2021, Hyundai sold 32,983 hybrids in the United States, more than a 5-fold increase from the same period last year.

“Our research shows that there is growing consumer interest in eco-friendly vehicles,” says Michael Stewart, a spokesman for Hyundai Motors USA. “Hybrids are great transition models as we move to a zero-emissions future.” Ken Gillingham, a professor of environmental economics at Yale University, adds, “The more that people are comfortable with hybrids, the more they might be comfortable with electric vehicles in the future.”

CleanTechnica readers will disagree — as a group, they disparage plug-in hybrids, never mind hybrids — but the Washington Post claims the public’s newfound acceptance of hybrids could be a promising sign for an eventual shift toward electric vehicles. Just how it comes up with that conclusion is unclear. Many hybrids use the onboard gasoline engine almost constantly, so drivers seldom get to experience true battery electric motoring.

They also have such tiny batteries — most are 2 kWh or less. Even if they can drive on electricity alone, they can only do so for short distances. Need to climb a hill? The gas engine kicks in. Need to merge onto the highway? Not without an assist from the engine. Need to heat up the passenger compartment on a cold day? Fire up the gas engine and use it to keep everyone toasty warm.

The hybrid boom should help the environment in the short term, Gillingham says. The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest automotive trends report found that in model year 2019, hybrid cars, excluding trucks, averaged 41.7 miles per gallon, while non-hybrids got only 29.4 mpg.

For every 100,000 miles driven, hybrids save about 1,000 gallons of gasoline, and 9.8 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide are avoided. Over the lifespan of the hundreds of thousands of hybrids sold in 2019, carbon emissions could be reduced by millions of tons.

Some industry observers think the public’s love affair with hybrids could detract from sales of battery electric cars. Christie Schweinsberg, an electrification analyst at Wards Intelligence, says an increase in available models could spur EV sales in coming years. Customers may find themselves asking, “Why do I need a Tesla Model Y if I can get 50 miles a gallon in a RAV4 hybrid?” Wards says its data shows hybrid vehicles account for 4.9% of the new car market, while fully electric vehicles make up only 2.3%.

Not everyone agrees with that analysis. Gil Tal, director of the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California at Davis, doesn’t think hybrids are stealing sales from electric vehicles. The two technologies appeal to different types of car buyers, he says, “There’s some overlap, but it’s not the same.”

If Things Were Different…

The attitude of hybrid fans — that hybrids are better than a kick in the head and we should be grateful for the reduced emissions they provide — would be fine in 1980 when the world still had time to change course on global overheating. But today? It’s too little too late, given the dire warnings from the latest IPCC 6 report. We don’t have time to coast comfortably into the future and we don’t have time to wait more than 2 decades for new technologies to gain public acceptance.

Troglodytes in Congress are pushing back hard against Joe Biden’s EV push in order to please their fossil fuel masters and score political points. With that attitude, there is little hope the EV revolution will proceed nearly fast enough.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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