Super-high gas prices may be able to do what eccentrics and environmentalists have been unable to do: push high-efficiency, low-emission hybrid cars into the mainstream. Gas-electric hybrids cost thousands more than conventional cars, but they get more than 45 miles per gallon.
The Big Three automakers all have new hybrids coming soon. Ford expects to unveil a souped-up Escape SUV later this year. DaimlerChrysler plans a gas-electric version of its Dodge Ram pickups, and General Motors will roll out the Saturn Vue SUV in 2005.
Today's hybrid cars-like the Toyota Prius or some Honda Civics-include a battery-powered motor that kicks in at low speeds or during acceleration. It recharges during braking and when the conventional gasoline engine runs.
Enthusiasts call hybrid cars a major step toward replacing the dirty old internal combustion engine. Yet sales have disappointed automakers that poured millions into research and design. (Fully electric cars flopped in the United States; Ford decided to quit selling the experimental Think brand of vehicles last year.)
But hybrid cars have won sympathy from regulators and lawmakers. Some owners, for example, now qualify for a $2,000 clean-burning fuel-tax deduction granted by the IRS. Virginia and Arizona push sales by letting hybrid drivers enter high-occupancy lanes without passengers.