W
ay back when, it seemed like hybrid cars were only for wacky environmentalists who envisioned the future as hemp pants, office sleep pods and homes made of bamboo and kale stems. In the early 2000s, if you happened to see someone driving a Citrus Yellow Metallic Honda Insight with the solid disc wheels, the low slung bullet-train body and those rear wheel covers, you’d either think it was the coolest car you’d ever laid eyes on, or a stunt car for the remake of Logan’s Run.

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But all that has changed in a fairly short amount of time. If you’ve ever considered purchasing a hybrid vehicle for your next car, you’re not alone. Hybrids no longer look bizarre, and they’ve become a very real alternative to conventional purely gas-powered combustion engine cars. Whether it’s a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt or a gas-electric hybrid such as the Toyota Prius, hybrids have experienced a stunning rise in popularity and a much more balanced, realistic stigma.

But it’s not all flowers, Pikachu, and future decades of booming hybrid sales. The auto industry seems to have a different, more nuanced version of what the future of environmentally minded cars actually looks like. In 2014, advisory services firm KPMG conducted a survey of 200 auto industry executives to evaluate the current automotive landscape and what it says about the future of pure gas, hybrid and electric cars. Of those surveyed, 92 percent believed fuel efficiency is the top priority for consumers, and that it behooves manufacturers to find new ways to increase mileage or improve existing technologies. The general consensus is that while battery-gas hybrids are gaining in popularity and will continue to do so, cars that run on pure electricity such as the Nissan Leaf will continue to experience limited growth and might even decrease in sales unless their range limitation issues change, prices decrease, or the network of infrastructure support is improved. What’s more, it’s the future of the gas-powered car that — somewhat shockingly — shows the most promise.

Despite tech advances, the current automotive market place isn’t all flowers, Pikachu, happiness and a future decades of booming hybrid sales.

It’s almost hard to believe that as we head rapidly toward the future, it’s the gas-powered car that’s the highest on automakers’ development radar, instead of newer, environmentally friendly options. Indeed, 47 percent of the surveyed executives consider use of alternative fuel technologies as critical to consumers’ purchase decisions, down from 70 percent in 2009. But insiders also believe that efficiency gained for gas engines that leads to better mpgs and emissions have the greatest degree of growth potential in world where conventional wisdom says the opposite — that the gas engine is going the way of the dodo. That belief is apparently a myth, along with the idea that we’ll someday soon cease to be dependent on fossil fuels.

A whopping 76 percent of those surveyed said that innovating and decreasing the size of the gas-powered internal combustion engine may just deliver the best chance of making mileage gains and decreasing those nasty emissions. One impressive example of the kind of promise gas engines show is the Mazda SkyActiv engine. With no forced induction or battery power, the purely gasoline-powered 4-cylinder engine improves gas mileage from 23 to 27 mpg city and from 39 to 48 mpg highway over the previous model. These are, frankly, huge gains, and there’s a belief among auto industry experts that they can be replicated.

On the flip side, the survey shows that few automotive executives anticipate a major impact in the near future from purely battery-powered plug-in vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf unless there’s a drastic change in their practicality, specifically with regard to range, charging time and battery size and weight. “Just one in 10 of all survey participants think that battery electrified vehicles will be the next big thing”, the report concludes. This, by no means, indicates the death of the electric car, but it does mean that major strides will have to be made in order for their appeal to spread beyond Mountain View, California.

Of surveyed auto experts, 92 percent believe fuel efficiency is the top priority for consumers, and that it behooves manufacturers to either find new ways to increase mileage or improve existing technologies.

It’s the lack of day-to-day practicality that’s working against pure electrics. Does the term YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) mean anything to you? If you own a Nissan Leaf, you most likely need a second car for getting away for the weekend at a venue farther than a stone’s throw from home. Sure, you can rent a car, but doesn’t that defeat the principles of environmentalism and convenience that motivated you to buy the Leaf in the first place?

Plus, the charging time, even for rapid chargers, is constraining to the point of crippling. If your electric car is close to sapped of wheel-spinning juice, and you need to go somewhere in just a couple of hours, you won’t get a full charge — running the risk of going dry mid-trip. All of this rigamarole gets in the way of electric car sales growth, and most folks just can’t afford the 265-mile range Tesla Model S (upwards of $70,000). The KPMG study actually shows a decreasing interest in plug-in electric cars among industry insiders, down to 11 percent in 2013 from 16 percent in 2012. If that trend continues, it doesn’t bode well for manufacturers who have invested heavily in not only the cars themselves but the charging infrastructure to support them.

On the other hand, it looks like gas-electric hybrids (the kind where the gas engine kicks in when needed) have a much brighter future. Interest in such cars in the KPMG study jumped from 21 percent to a whopping 36 percent from 2012 to 2013. All of this is evident in improved sales for gas-electric hybrids while sales of the Nissan Leaf have dropped, thanks to the bad publicity created by pictures of a handful of them attached to the back of tow trucks. But it doesn’t signal the end of the electric car — not by a long shot. The world’s increasing environmental mindset will ensure that, and manufacturers are motivated to improve their driving range as well as charging technologies.

But it’s certain that the future of the gas-electric hybrid is secure, at least for the foreseeable future. It provides the car-buying public with more options than ever before, and as the technology improves (and hopefully so does their performance), we’ll likely see the gas-electric hybrid’s popularity increase even more. As far as the electric car is concerned, we’re still hopeful but not wildly optimistic about gains in popularity and practicality. Then again, Elon Musk might just run the world someday, at least if he has it his way.

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