The number of hybrid-powered vehicles on California roads will reach as high as 600,000 by 2011, state officials estimate in the wake of a peace treaty between automakers and clean air regulators there.
Instead of mandating battery-electric cars, newly revised clean air rules let companies achieve pollution-reduction goals by selling millions of ultraclean gasoline-powered engines and hundreds of thousands of hybrids. A hybrid combines an internal combustion engine and electric motor. The companies also are supposed to build a few fuel cell vehicles.
The hybrid's elevated role in California - and in other states that adopt California's emissions rules - is just the latest indication that gasoline-electric hybrids are the wave of the future. And if obstacles to hydrogen fuel cells prove to be as daunting as some skeptics say, the hybrid era could be even bigger and longer lasting.
Hybrid Toyotas and Hondas are available already. Toyota Motor Corp. has said it will have hybrid versions of a wide range of models. Each of the Big 3 plans to begin introducing hybrids by the end of 2004. And others are preparing to jump in.
So estimates of up to 600,000 in California, cumulatively by 2011 - or about one in every 50 vehicles on the road - appear reasonable. The rules envision having hybrids reach up to 4 percent of new-vehicle sales, or nearly 80,000 annually at current levels.