Green Update: Birth and Death of the Hybrid

2010 Toyota Prius

Matthew DeBord writes on cars for Slate’s Big Money site. He’s generally a smart car guy; occasionally I’ve even stooped to quote him. Well, the man recently claimed that the Toyota Prius has become “the most important car of all time.” Yes, he did.

DeBord reasons that over the last ten years, Toyota has totally changed the automobile game, bringing its Prius not only to represent all hybrids (through its market dominance), but creating “a new category of vehicle,” shifting us finally away from the internal combustion engine.

That’s a big claim for a car with a tiny market share though, indeed, a very vocal cheering section. It’s a preposterous claim when you consider the history of hybrids and the fact that they are only important as interim vehicles on the way to fully electrified cars—or maybe hydrogen-powered cars, or maybe—who knows?

Anyway, enter Warren Brown, car columnist seemingly forever for the Washington Post, who still contributes and occasionally blogs at Real Wheels Live, where he went after Matthew. He made the following points, with which I mostly concur:

  1. Porsche was first with hybrids in 1918-1920, but abandoned the idea.
  2. In the 1990s “all other car companies” understood gas-electric, but thought of it as an “expensive interim technology” and chose other routes, e.g., hydrogen, clean diesel, and so on.
  3. Toyota hyped hybrid tech, and the politicians and mass media went for it. Perception became reality as Toyota became “The Green Giant of Autodom” (while still selling scads of gas-guzzling trucks).
  4. Other companies climbed on the hybrid bandwagon and some, like Ford with its Fusion Hybrid, have even beaten Toyota at its own game.

Ford Fusion HybridPoint two is simply wrong, Warren. The U.S. companies ceded the field to Toyota for a while because they were still waiting to see which way the new “clean winds” were going to blow. They did not invest in these far-out technologies until GM went with a semi-EV Volt and Nissan hatched its Leaf. Ford is about the only one to push hybrid tech; the rest are going electric.

Which means basically that hybrids are merely a way-station until we get proper electric cars and infrastructure. They will be here for a while, but I can’t see how anyone could call the Prius the most important car of all time. Auto time marches on, and radical changes in the car biz are still very much in process. The Prius’s dominance seems to be almost over.

Are hybrids here to stay, or are they on the way out? Is the dominance of the Prius over?


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  1. I agree with tgriffith on this one. Prius will be recognized as the first mass-market electric/hybrid vehicle. While companies like GM spend hundreds of millions to design and market forgettable regurgitations of their past (Camaro) and megahogs like Hummer, Toyota will go down as a technology leader.

  2. The Prius is important not because of its market share but because of its market awareness. I’d put it near the top of the most important cars of all time because it is ushering in the era of electric cars. It has succeeded in helping the world’s citizens see that electricity/batteries are feasible ways to power a car.

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