As Hybrids Become More Popular, Their Green Benefits Are Questioned

Toyota says its ‘electrified vehicles’ include hybrids as well as zero carbon-emission cars. PHOTO: BING GUAN/BLOOMBERG NEWS
Toyota says its ‘electrified vehicles’ include hybrids as well as zero carbon-emission cars. PHOTO: BING GUAN/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Summary

Automakers are battling with climate groups over how gas-electric vehicles are marketed as regulators prepare new emission rules.

Climate activists are questioning how environmentally friendly hybrid vehicles are as those cars rise in popularity.

The battle over the green bona fides of hybrids comes ahead of what could be the toughest U.S. restrictions on car pollution.

Hybrids combine a gasoline engine with battery power and generally get far better gas mileage than the cars and trucks Americans have typically driven. Hybrid makers led by Toyota Motor argue that the vehicles’ popularity is something to celebrate and “an important solution toward achieving carbon neutrality," Toyota executive Yoichi Miyazaki said.

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Those on the other side of the debate, including activists and some regulators, say hybrids aren’t good enough if the world hopes to meet ambitious carbon-reduction targets.

“Putting more gasoline-powered cars on roads and saying that’s good for the climate is just misleading," said Aaron Regunberg, senior policy counsel at consumer group Public Citizen and a former member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives.

The market’s shift to hybrids has brought a windfall for Toyota and prompted automakers including Ford Motor and General Motors to lean more heavily into gasoline-electric technology.

In December, Public Citizen filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission sayingToyota’s branding of its hybrids as “hybrid EVs" as well as marketing phrases such as “electrified mobility" and “beyond zero" mislead consumers. Toyota North America said its marketing uses terms that are standard in the automotive industry.

Public Citizen has pushed attorneys general in states including Oregon, New York, Rhode Island and Illinois into examining the matter. Representatives at the state offices declined to comment about potential investigations and how far they may have progressed, and the FTC didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The marketing debate is a skirmish ahead of an Environmental Protection Agency decision, due this spring, on proposed restrictions. As proposed last year, the new standards would require average fleet emissions to be cut by 56% by 2032 compared with 2026 model-year requirements.

A group representing carmakers including Toyota, Honda Motor and Ford is lobbying against the rules. Automakers forecast they would have to sell 67% electric vehicles by 2032 to meet the standards. The companies say the rules would force them to pivot away too quickly from hybrids and other gasoline-powered cars and result in consumers purchasing more costly vehicles.

The EPA’s “draconian EV mandate" would actually be bad for the environment, said Stephen Ciccone, Toyota’s North America head of government affairs, in a message to U.S. dealers.

“We can transition to EVs, but the speed of the transition has to be more realistic," Ciccone wrote in a memo seen by The Wall Street Journal. Despite “a lot of hits from environmental activists" and others, Ciccone wrote, “we have not—and we will not—back down."

 

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Research shows that hybrid models typically pump less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than cars powered solely by gasoline. EVs don’t emit any carbon dioxide while being driven, but in the U.S., the electricity to charge them usually is generated at least in part by power plants burning natural gas or coal. Also, more emissions are produced when manufacturing EVs and their batteries than when manufacturing gasoline-only cars.

A study by the U.S. Department of Energy calculated that, using a nationwide average of different energy sources in 2022, EVs produce annual emissions that heat the planet to the same extent as 2,727 pounds of carbon dioxide. That compares with 6,898 pounds for hybrids and 12,594 pounds for gasoline-only cars.

A 2019 study conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology comparing similar vehicles across their gasoline-only, hybrid and EV configurations showed similar results.

The big gap between hybrids and gasoline-only cars is the reason Toyota’s Prius, the pioneering hybrid introduced in the late 1990s, was a darling of environmental groups and Hollywood types.

Now those groups argue EVs are the better option. Hybrids, they say, are being used as an excuse by carmakers to avoid moving quickly toward all-electric offerings.

Regunberg of Public Citizen said consumers care about their climate impact and are being misled into believing their hybrids are more similar to EVs than they actually are. “As the world’s biggest automaker, obviously Toyota has a lot of influence here," he said.

In 2019, a consumer-protection authority in Norway took action against a Toyota promotion that called the company’s hybrid vehicles “self-charging" and therefore free to charge. Toyota meant that power from the hybrid’s gasoline engine is partly stored in batteries for later use. Norway said the campaign was misleading.

Toyota says EVs reduce emissions only if people are willing to buy them, and many consumers today, especially in the U.S., are worried about charging problems and the higher price of an EV.

About 1.4 million hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles were sold in the U.S. last year, compared with 1.1 million EVs, according to data from car-shopping website Edmunds. Hybrid sales were up 63% from the previous year, while EV sales climbed 51%.

Toyota says the rare minerals used in car batteries are in limited supply, and hybrids use those minerals more sparingly. With hybrids, it says, more gasoline-only vehicles can be taken off the road.

The various EV terms and figures about what is good for the environment have left consumers confused, said Scott Kunes, chief operating officer of Kunes Auto and RV, a group of more than 40 auto and RV dealerships in the Midwest.

Kunes said much of the hybrid demand is coming from drivers who want to “dip their toe in the water" before committing to a fully electric car. He called on the EPA not to mandate electric-vehicle sales when consumers aren’t ready.

“We’re sitting here at the ground level," he said. “We just have to sell what’s selling."

Write to River Davis at river.davis@wsj.com

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