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Hybrids That Don't Plug In Have A Murky Future In The US

Standard, “self-charging” hybrid vehicle sales are higher than they have ever been in the US. Automakers are planning on making many more of them, branching out to include new pickup, SUV and minivan hybrid offerings in recent years. But there’s a big problem brewing for hybrid vehicle sales in the US: several states have already committed to selling only new plug-in vehicles by 2035.

The problem, for the manufacturers, is actually much bigger than the US states that plan to ban standard hybrids along with non-hybrid light passenger vehicles. Countries in Europe and elsewhere are planning to ban them too. Obviously, car manufacturers could still find markets for standard hybrids in countries that haven’t abandoned fully gas powered light duty vehicles. But, those markets would not be very large, compared to China, the US and Europe. Without the largest markets being wide open for hybrid sales, car makers would struggle to keep or attain economies of scale necessary to produce enough hybrids for smaller markets. And once that begins to happen, hybrid vehicles will rapidly disappear from manufacturers' product lines.

As NPR points out, hybrids are almost twice as popular with US car shoppers as EVs (with about 20% vs. 11% interested in each, apparently). Automakers, it seems, are racing to produce more models and versions of each, as well as a smaller assortment of plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEV) as they must achieve increasingly strict emissions targets and unless they are already 100% electric brands, hybrids of one flavor or another are an easier path to meeting their reduction targets. But that will only hold true for another decade or so, and then individual markets will start closing down to these options and automakers will have no choice if they want to do business in these states and countries. They will have to only sell cars with plugs or possibly with hydrogen fuel cells, but that’s even more of a niche at this point and likely will remain so. Some consumers may dread this, and complain loudly, but short of global catastrophe or drastic materials shortage, the market is going to move no matter what.

But there is another growing “threat” to hybrid car sales (maybe competitor is a better way to say it). What is it you ask? A combined and growing push from climate advocates, local, state and federal government and electric bike (e-bike) manufacturers. Climate advocates and governing bodies are pushing the expansion of public transit and better walkability in our cities and towns, and electric bicycle manufacturers are churning out e-bikes in greater numbers than ever, even outselling all plug-in light duty passenger vehicles combined in some markets and on pace to outsell all motor vehicles sold combined, in others. Add to all of this the rapidly increasing market for fully electric vehicles (EVs), and it is not hard to see why hybrid sales are in jeopardy, long term. It is simply the case that hybrids were intended to fulfill transitionary roles, and that stage is coming to an end, gradually. Consumer reluctance toward change will continue to pump demand in the near term, as will real conflicting circumstances for consumers who have no place to plug in a vehicle. But as public charging infrastructure is built out, and as the prices of at least some plug-in vehicles begin to fall, the transition away from all light duty passenger vehicles that are completely dependent on gasoline will accelerate rapidly.

Do you agree that hybrids’ days are numbered, or do you feel otherwise? Might some factors not mentioned here slow down or halt any of the market forces and planning efforts I described? Please leave any questions or comments below.

Image courtesy of Toyota.

Justin Hart has owned and driven electric vehicles for over 15 years, including a first generation Nissan LEAF, second generation Chevy Volt, Tesla Model 3, an electric bicycle and most recently a Kia Sorento PHEV. He is also an avid SUP rider, poet, photographer and wine lover. He enjoys taking long EV and PHEV road trips to beautiful and serene places with the people he loves. Follow Justin on Twitter for daily KIA EV news coverage.


John zano (not verified)    March 19, 2023 - 11:45PM

Low domestic supply of EV battery minerals and recycled materials for battery manufacturing is a major concern ! 50% of global lithium & cobalt reserves are in Chile and the Democratic Republic of Congo ! Good luck with that ! Just think about that . What are we going to do with old EV batteries ? What about cars fires & cold weather ! Long way to go !!

Justin Hart    March 22, 2023 - 3:35AM

In reply to by John zano (not verified)

I beg to differ John, on the sentiment that we have a long way to go. Battery recycling is ramping up (though perhaps it could do so quicker). Companies like Redwood Materials: are already leading the way on that front. Domestic lithium sources are coming online in the next few years that could provide 100% of our current supply (though that demand will likely keep growing). Not sure what’s wrong with Chile supplying lithium either… has to be better than the oil we currently consumer from countries with far worse human rights records. Gas powered cars catch on fire far far more often than battery powered cars do and EVs are actually superior to gas powered cars in many ways in cold weather (they are faster to provide heat, can provide heat for far longer periods of time given % full of charge/tank of gas, etc.). I think that you may want to consider broadening your sources of information. There is certainly progress needed to be made, no doubt, but we are much closer than I think you describe.