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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

There's a lot of optimism inside the Los Angeles Convention Center this week. The L.A. Auto Show is in full force, and hybrid cars are taking up a lot of floor space. But they still represent a tiny portion of the U.S. car market. Fewer than 1 percent of cars on the road have hybrid or electric technology. That will have to change if car companies are to meet new fuel efficiency rules. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports on the challenge of getting consumers on board.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: If you watch TV, you'd think the hybrid was king.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What if everything ran on gas? Then again, what if everything didn't?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Toyota presents the Prius Family.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We speak RPMs, so you can zip by other cars. But we also speak MPGs, so you can fly by gas stations.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I thought these were electric.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It is. Yeah. It's a Chevy Volt.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: So what are you doing at a gas station?

GLINTON: Well, hybrids are far from king. Hybrid sales are well under 3 percent of 13 million cars sold in the U.S.

BRIAN MOODY: Well, for one thing, automakers buy advertising.

GLINTON: Brian Moody is with the car website AutoTrader.com.

MOODY: And they want you to think that their hybrid is the next best thing. They want you to think of their company as primarily a green company. So the more they can get that message out, then the less ill you might think of them, and you may buy one of their cars, even if it isn't a hybrid.

GLINTON: Nearly half the consumers say they'll never consider buying a hybrid, according to a recent survey by Kelley Blue Book. Moody says the main reason is price. But the debate how to fuel the car goes back as far as the car itself. If you want to learn about the history of cars and their place in American life, there's one you need to go, and one dude you need to meet: Bob Casey.

BOB CASEY: Here is a grouping of electric cars: an 1896 Richer, and one of the earliest surviving hybrids, a 1916 Woods Dual Power.

GLINTON: Bob Casey is senior curator at The Henry Ford. The museum is huge, something like nine acres of exhibits dedicated to cars - just about any car you can imagine, even a hybrid that looks vaguely like a Model T.

CASEY: What they found, however, was that in trying to build a hybrid car - and they didn't call it a hybrid car then. That's why they called it a dual power. There was no demand for it.

GLINTON: That's because, at the time, gas was really, really cheap. There were no CAFE laws. There were no emissions laws.

CASEY: And these things are expensive, so there was no consumer rationale for this car. There was no regulatory rationale for this car. And so, after a year, there was no great demand, and the car faded and the company faded.

GLINTON: It took almost 80 years for hybrid technology to rise from the ashes. Now, almost every carmaker has some form of hybrid technology. But the undisputed king is the Toyota Prius. Nearly half the hybrids sold this October were Prius.

BOB CARTER: Ten years after the introduction of the Prius, there's not a viable competitor on the market.

GLINTON: That's Bob Carter, president of Toyota North America. Carter says young buyers are the future of hybrid market.

CARTER: And I really truly believe that the Prius will define the company in the future, and as we get into later in the decade, Prius will probably upset Camry to become the number one nameplate in the U.S.

GLINTON: You said probably. How probably do you think that is?

CARTER: Well, I'm confident enough to tell you publicly that that's my own personal feeling.

GLINTON: Carter says hybrids are the best way to get to higher fuel economy standards. He and other auto executives say customers may not be ready for hybrids yet, but now it's time for the car companies to lead them there. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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