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Are hybrids losing their alternative crown?

Are hybrids losing their alternative crown?

Hybrid cars--the darlings of the alternative-auto world to date--are losing out to newer technologies such as ethanol-based fuels and hydrogen cells when it comes to public perception of the most viable alternatives to gasoline engines, according to an ongoing AOL poll. When asked which alternative they thought "most promising," 40 percent of nearly 35,000 respondents came out in favor of ethanol, with 25 percent supporting a hydrogen-based solution, 17 percent voting for biodiesel, and just 13 percent choosing hybrids.

A recent high-profile marketing campaign from Chevy, which unveiled a fleet of corn-fueled Tahoe SUVs at this month's 2006 New York Auto Show, has no doubt increased public awareness of ethanol as an alternative fuel, specifically in the form of E85, an 85 percent-ethanol/15 percent-gasoline mix.

Meanwhile, President George Bush--that paragon of the alternative-energy movement--toured the California Fuel Cell Partnership in Sacramento over the weekend, declaring that "hydrogen is the way of the future." Bush said he believed that today's children would take their driving tests in hydrogen-powered cars.

So where does all this leave hybrids? Is the end nigh for technologies such as Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD), found in the wildly popular 2006 Toyota Prius? The lower costs to manufacturers--and, therefore, customers--of ethanol-based engines over expensively sophisticated dual-propulsion systems such as the HSD are obvious (although the hydrogen camp still has considerable R&D and production costs to tackle before it can realistically enter the consumer market). And the significantly lower number of harmful emissions that come from ethanol- and hydrogen-based engines make gas-and-electric cars look less ecofriendly. It appears that hybrids may be just alternative-vehicle placeholders until we manage to roll out ethanol-ready engines and gas stations, as well as optimize the hydrogen fuel cell.