But with gasoline use increasing 1.7 percent a year through 2025, hybrids' impact on oil consumption will be small, according to the latest outlook by the US Department of Energy. It predicts only 1.1 million hybrids will be sold in 2025. Even in the most optimistic case, assuming rapid adoption of hybrid and other car technologies, the US would still chop only 172 million barrels of oil a year by 2025 - about 2.5 percent of expected oil imports that year. On the other side, Mr. McManus predicts more hybrids will be sold in 2010 than the DOE's 2025 estimate.
So who's right? Consumers are eager. Last month, 49 percent of new-car buyers, the highest level ever, had changed their mind or were thinking strongly about buying a vehicle they would not have considered because of gas prices, according to a survey by Harris Interactive and Kelley Blue Book.
"We're going to have many, many choices," says Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of Green Car Journal, a monthly magazine devoted to energy-efficient and environmentally friendlier cars. "Hybrids are here right now. They're quite clearly the next big thing. To look off into the future for hydrogen is not giving enough credit to what we have here and now."
Nissan plans to offer a hybrid version of its popular Altima model using Toyota technology next year. Even GM says it will soon offer "mild hybrid" technology that stops a car's motor while stuck in traffic - and automatically restarts it. At least 17 hybrid-electric models will be available in the US market by 2006 with 38 forecast by 2011, market research company J.D. Power and Associates reported in February.
Even so, the company is not bullish about hybrids. "Despite the significant growth in the number of models and annual sales over the next five years, we anticipate hybrid market share to reach a plateau of about 3 percent near the end of the decade," writes Anthony Pratt, a senior manager at J.D. Power, in the report.