Despite Hybrid Losses, Car Companies Invest In Tech Even automakers are making a boatload on trucks, they're investing tens of billions in new technology. NPR reports on how tomorrow's hybrid is brought to you by today's pickup truck.

Despite Hybrid Losses, Car Companies Invest In Tech

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And the numbers are in - 2015 was the best sales year in the history of the car business. Most of the vehicles sold were trucks and SUVs, which means it wasn't a great year for hybrids. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: The big car companies have been in a celebratory mood at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Seventeen and a half million cars, trucks and SUVs were sold in 2015. On top was Toyota. Here's Bob Carter with Toyota Motor Sales.

BOB CARTER: The last time that we were close to these numbers, we did 17.4 million in 2006. But if you look, if you just compare 2006 to 2015, the dynamics of the car market have changed dramatically.

GLINTON: Since then, General Motors and Chrysler were bailed out, fuel economy standards have gotten really tough and gas plummeted in the last year. So while sales were up at Toyota, sales of their hybrid, Prius, have gone down.

CARTER: Fuel prices - when fuel prices go down in some parts of the country, it went under $2 a gallon. That lowers MPG on the shopping list of some consumers.

GLINTON: MPG, or miles per gallon, became less important to consumers so they bought a lot of trucks and SUVs. Trucks and SUVs were nearly 60 percent of overall sales.

ROLAND HWANG: Well, the problem is that the high sales of light trucks and SUVs is causing a backsliding in our fuel economy program.

GLINTON: Roland Hwang is with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. Hwang says he's worried that the carmakers have forgotten the recent past.

HWANG: They're putting their jobs at risk, they're putting their profits at risk. They're putting our nation's and our security at risk by pivoting to a near-term market condition which in the future can create a rather large liability like we saw in 2007 and 2008.

GLINTON: That said, the car companies are spending billions on alternative fuel vehicles and lighter materials. Mark Fields is the CEO of Ford Motor Company. He says even though Ford is selling more trucks than ever, the trucks they're selling are more fuel-efficient.

MARK FIELDS: Because we want people to see that we are very serious about this and we're making tangible - tangible progress to reposition our business and to satisfy customers in new ways than they never thought before from Ford.

GLINTON: It doesn't add up to me. How do you remain the leading truck-building company and then start to build, in a significant way, electric cars?

FIELDS: Well, it's very simple. You know, we're a leader in mobility. It's a natural extension of our business.

GLINTON: Meanwhile, Karl Brauer with Kelley Blue Book says the last thing the car companies want is to experience what happened seven years ago.

KARL BRAUER: A spike in gas prices, a drop in economic prosperity and a scramble to get away from any kind of large truck or SUV and not have an alternative in the pipeline.

GLINTON: Brauer says high truck sales mean high profitability.

BRAUER: That gives them the ability to invest in alternative fuel technology. So beyond the kind of hedging their bets for future market shifts, they also are required by government regulation to produce a certain amount of these cars. So they got to develop them whether they otherwise would or not.

GLINTON: Brauer says tomorrow's alternative fuel vehicles will be brought to you by today's trucks. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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