Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images
A quarter of a century ago, Toyota released a revolutionary vehicle: the Prius.
The Prius was the first of a new class of cars that married an electric motor to a gasoline engine to dramatically increase fuel economy and reduce emissions.
Today, hybrid vehicles are popular with many drivers – and enduring popularity in a growing segment of vehicles. And a new revolution is emerging, with automakers investing billions of dollars in all-electric vehicles that don’t use gas.
Car buyers still prefer hybrids because they can save on gas and reduce their carbon footprint without worrying about the range or needing to charge at home.
But even as hybrids move into the mainstream, they’re losing traction among their original enthusiasts: environmentalists.
Many say it’s time for hybrids to fade into history; They are at best a diversion and at worst a distraction in the fight against climate change.
“We’re facing a climate crisis right now, and we need to completely reduce our dependence on fossil fuel cars,” says Catherine Garcia, who directs the Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All campaign.
Here’s what you need to know about the environmental debate about hybrids.
Hybrids are a popular choice among shoppers
Hybrids may not get as much buzz as EVs, but they’re flying off the dealership lot.
Take Steve Bond, who was checking out some of the hybrids on display at the Washington DC Auto Show last month. “I think it’s time to go straight from gasoline to a hybrid model for better mileage,” he said, explaining why he thought the hybrid Toyota Highlander would be his next vehicle.
He’s thought about an electric vehicle, but the lack of fast chargers for long-distance trips is keeping him from buying one today, he says.
He summed up his view of EVs in four words: “Yes — but not yet.”
At the Subaru show, Carla Grenell said she’s more likely to buy a hybrid than an EV.
“If I could plug it into my house, I would,” he said. But as a city dweller she is not sure can Charges at home – Not many people can.
Michael Krebs, managing analyst at Cox Automotive, says these concerns are common. As a result, hybrids are more popular with shoppers than all-electric vehicles.
“About 11% of new car buyers are looking at EVs,” he says. “About 20% of new car buyers buy hybrids.”
Actual sales figures for both types of vehicles are low as there are not enough vehicles to meet the demand. But shopping figures a lot of people prefer hybrids, if they can get their hands on them.
Now there are many more hybrid options
Initially, the Prius dominated the hybrid market. But today hybrids have proliferated, with options in nearly every segment, and Toyota and other automakers continue to invest in them.
Smaller vehicles like the Prius have even received a well-received redesign. (Sample review citation: “We can’t believe we’re writing this in a Prius review, but — the new Prius…funny To drive!” ) and that’s still 57 miles per gallon
Daniel Lippitt/AFP via Getty Images
But SUVs outsell small cars across the market, including hybrids. Toyota’s hybrid RAV-4 crossover (41 miles to the gallon) and hybrid Highlander SUV (36 mpg) beat the Prius last year.
Kia, Hyundai and Honda all offer hybrid SUVs in various sizes. Toyota’s minivan, the Sienna, only comes as a hybrid (36 mpg).
And then there are pickup trucks. Ford sells a hybrid version of its F-150, and the popular Maverick — a compact pickup designed to appeal to urbanites with a yearning for a truck — comes as a hybrid in its standard configuration. The Maverick gets about 42 miles per gallon.
On the sportier side of the spectrum, Corvette introduced its first hybrid: the E-Ray. Gas mileage is not impressive. But with an electric motor the size of a Folger’s coffee between the front wheels, it’s the fastest Corvette capable of going from zero to 60 in 2.5 seconds.
But are hybrids good for the planet at this point?
Currently, a debate is unfolding in the auto industry — among companies, advocates and government regulators — about whether hybrids are helping or hurting the ongoing fight against climate change.
Frankly, a hybrid vehicle is better for the climate and human health than a gas guzzler.
But as they look to the future, climate advocates no longer stress the need to make gas-powered cars more efficient. They want to reduce the number of car trips by investing in public transport and walking.
And they want all new cars on the road to be zero-emission vehicles, which means, currently, all electric vehicles powered by the green electricity grid. Such a transition presents difficult challenges – from building vehicles to obtaining battery minerals.
Garcia, with the Sierra Club, says it’s important to pull off the transition to zero-emission vehicles as quickly as possible. Carbon emissions are delayed every year due to the longer lifespan of vehicles on the road.
“Every year we’re going to have an extension of the pollution from traffic,” he says. “The truth is, we should have changed 20 years ago.”
These advocates argue that all the money and engineering know-how invested in hybrids is not going toward pure electric vehicles, slowing the transition.
Kamil Krsacinski/AFP via Getty Images
Toyota makes an environmental case for hybrids
On the other side of the debate, you have Toyota.
While it revolutionized hybrids, the Japanese automaker has long been skeptical of EVs. As a result, it is lagging far behind its competitors in the race to bring them to market.
Today, Toyota has a new CEO who is very interested in all-electric vehicles. But the company continues to argue, to anyone who will listen, that hybrids can and should be a central component in fighting climate change.
“I think we’re taking a pragmatic approach to this,” said Cooper Erickson, Toyota Motor North America’s senior vice president for battery electric vehicles.
He pointed out that hybrids are significantly cheaper than EVs to produce and buy, and they don’t require a charger. A car buyer can buy a hybrid instead of a traditional gas vehicle without changing its driving behavior and sell it easily.
But even if all drivers are absolutely ready to make the jump to EVs, Toyota argues that hybrids still make sense. Because their batteries are so small, a company can build far more hybrids than EVs from the same battery sources.
How will regulators treat hybrids?
The discussion of hybrids is not imaginary. Regulators must decide whether their policies should shift to EVs as quickly as possible or focus on promoting hybrids and their better gas mileage.
In Europe, California and many other states, policymakers have taken a more extreme stance, mandating that all new cars be zero-emission by 2035. It needs petrol to run.
To understand how regulators’ views have changed, consider what Marco Ogin, former director of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, has parked in his driveway.
When the Prius first came out, she was thrilled. “I was one of the first buyers,” he says. “I was excited because I got to walk the talk.”
These days, however, he drives an all-electric vehicle. And she calling Her old agency set “ambitious” national auto standards and accelerated the transition away from all vehicles with gas tanks — including the Priuses she favored.
Hybrids may once have been revolutionary, but Oke says his problem with them is simple: They still run on fossil fuels.