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Sales of hybrid cars are surging. That’s a good sign for the future of electric vehicles, experts say.

Hybrid sales have grown faster than electric-vehicle sales for two years, according to data. Many think that’s a step in the right direction for the Biden administration’s ambitious auto goals.

Mechanics work on a hybrid car in a dealership in Johnstown, Pa. (Todd Berkey/The Tribune-Democrat/AP)
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Like most car dealerships during the pandemic, Hudson Hyundai in New Jersey is selling nearly any vehicle it can acquire. But some models move faster than others.

“The hybrids really go first,” said sales agent Alicia Mandona. “I have at least three customers waiting.”

Hybrid cars improve fuel economy by using batteries to assist gasoline-powered engines, and their sales are soaring. While the broader U.S. auto industry recorded a 29 percent growth in sales in the first half of 2021, hybrid sales grew 142 percent, according to data provided by Wards Intelligence.

Hybrid sales have been growing faster than those of electric vehicles for the past two years — and many experts say that consumers’ apparent willingness to make the switch to hybrids, which has coincided with more popular models becoming available, could be a promising sign for an eventual shift toward electric vehicles.

“The more that people are comfortable with hybrids,” said Ken Gillingham, a professor of environmental economics at Yale University, “the more they might be comfortable with electric vehicles in the future.”

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Hyundai’s hybrid sales are even stronger than the national trend. In the past year, the company began offering three of its more popular models — the Tucson, Santa Fe and Elantra — with a hybrid option. Sales exploded. The company says that from January through July 2021, it sold 32,983 hybrids in the United States — a more than fivefold increase from the same period last year.

“Our research shows that there is growing consumer interest in eco-friendly vehicles,” said Michael Stewart, a spokesman for Hyundai Motors USA. “Hybrids are great transition models as we move to a zero-emissions future.”

That’s a future that President Biden is striving toward. On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced stricter fuel-efficiency standards, and the President signed an executive order calling for half of new cars to be electric or plug-in hybrids — which have a gas engine but can run on electricity for a limited range — by 2030.

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

For every 100,000 miles driven, hybrids save about 1,000 gallons of gasoline, and the release of roughly 9.8 tons of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is averted. Over the life spans of the hundreds of thousands of hybrids sold in that model year alone, emissions could be reduced by millions of tons.

Conversely, there are those who think that fuel-efficient hybrids could make electric vehicles a harder choice for consumers. Christie Schweinsberg, an electrification analyst at Wards Intelligence, says that although additional models should spur growth in electric-vehicle sales in coming years, customers may keep asking themselves, “Why do I need a Tesla Model Y if I can get 50 miles a gallon in a RAV4 hybrid?”

But Gil Tal, the 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 technologies, he says, appeal to different types of car buyers.

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“There’s some overlap, but it’s not the same,” he said, also noting that despite the growth, sales of both types of cars remain relatively nascent. According to recent Wards Intelligence data, hybrid vehicles account for only 4.9 percent of the market, while fully electric vehicles make up 2.3 percent.

“Both segments have a lot of room to grow before they start cannibalizing each other,” said Tal, adding that there are many reasons that people buy electric vehicles other than gas mileage. Those include quick acceleration; concerns about the climate; and even just the novelty of futuristic technology.

Still, electric vehicles face many hurdles, including cultural and financial obstacles. With a limited number of models on the market and pandemic-induced production delays, electric vehicles are hard to come by. Many U.S. dealers do not offer electric options, says Tal, and “people cannot want something they can’t find on the shelves.”

“Without drastic measures,” Schweinsberg said, “I don’t see a lot of Americans flocking to battery electric vehicles.”

The Biden administration is trying to address some of these issues with its new goals. The bipartisan infrastructure plan also calls for investments that could boost the sector, such as $7.5 billion of grants to expand the nation’s network of charging stations. The federal government, along with many states, also offers subsides for electric vehicles. And, last fall, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed an executive order to phase out the sale of new gas-powered cars in the state by 2035.

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For now, hybrids remain the most popular alternative to gas-only cars. Toyota has two models — the Venza and the Sienna — that are available exclusively as hybrids.

“When hybrids first came out, they were kind of seen as this weird oddity,” Gillingham said. Now, they’re mainstream — a fact he says bodes well for the trajectory of electric vehicles, too. “That gives me optimism.”

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