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The debate around hybrid cars heats up

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hybrid vehicles are the original clean car, and they're still popular with car shoppers. But when it comes to the fight against climate change, there's a big debate. Are hybrids a help or a hindrance? NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Twenty-five years ago, adding an electric motor to a gasoline engine was cutting-edge.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's a change happening. It begins with Prius, Toyota's revolutionary hybrid vehicle.

DOMONOSKE: This ad featured oil pumps snapping free from their bases and walking away.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Transportation is finally evolving.

DOMONOSKE: But transportation kept evolving beyond gasoline. Today, electric vehicles are the fastest-growing sector of the auto market, and prominent voices on climate change now say that hybrids should be history. Katherine Garcia runs the Sierra Club's Clean Transportation for All campaign. She is critical of Toyota for its plan to keep making hybrid vehicles instead of switching to just electrics. Garcia knows this might feel weird - the Prius, an environmental problem.

KATHERINE GARCIA: The Prius is a beloved car for many environmentalists.

DOMONOSKE: But which is more important - making gas-powered vehicles better or phasing them out as soon as possible?

GARCIA: Right now we are facing a climate crisis and we absolutely need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuel cars.

DOMONOSKE: And, yes, a hybrid vehicle is better for the planet and human health than a gas guzzler. But all the money and brainpower that auto companies put toward developing more hybrids - that's money and brainpower they're not putting toward the switch to all-electric vehicles. Some people call hybrids a bridge to EVs, but folks like Garcia say building a bridge takes time, and the climate doesn't have the luxury of time. Toyota still believes in hybrids.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Choose Toyota hybrids.

DOMONOSKE: The company argues it's worth it to make today's vehicles less bad even if it makes the overall switch to EVs take longer.

COOPER ERICKSEN: You know, I guess we're taking a pragmatic approach to this.

DOMONOSKE: Cooper Ericksen is with Toyota North America. Everyone agrees a rapid transition to EVs poses enormous challenges - building vehicles, getting battery minerals, building out charging infrastructure. So Toyota argues, don't count hybrids out yet. Yes, they still burn gasoline, but they burn less of it. And they're cheap. They don't need a charger. And their batteries are a lot smaller, so you can make a lot more of them.

ERICKSEN: It's a quantum leap better if you use these battery resources in a reasonable way.

DOMONOSKE: At this point, the auto industry agrees that gas-powered cars are on their way out eventually. But how long will that take, and what role will hybrids play? Toyota has moved up its timeline for electrification. It's still not as aggressive as many of its peers. And Erickson says Toyota's comfortable with that.

ERICKSEN: We've been ridiculed for being progressive in greenhouse gas emissions, and now we're being ridiculed for not being progressive enough in greenhouse gas emissions. I've seen all this in my career with the company.

DOMONOSKE: But this is not just a question of ridicule. There's a big question about requirements. California, New York and the European Union have all passed laws essentially banning new gas-powered cars by 2035. And that includes traditional hybrids. Margo Oge used to run transportation and air quality at the EPA. She was thrilled when the first Prius came out.

MARGO OGE: I was one of the first buyers. And I was excited because I want to walk the talk.

DOMONOSKE: But these days, in her driveway, you'll find an all-electric car. And her hope for hybrids is that before too long, they're phased out entirely. Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.