First Hybrid Car Appears on the U.S. Market

Gasoline-electric hybrid automobiles offered motorists alternative modes of transportation that were more fuel-efficient and emitted fewer pollutants than did vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. Concerned about issues such as global warming and rising fuel costs, many consumers preferred to drive hybrids.

Summary of Event

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, North American and European automobile makers devised the first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, which were too costly for many consumers. The oil crises of 1973 and 1979 resulted in renewed interest in alternative automobiles. The U.S. Congress passed the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1976. Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research, Development, and Demonstration Act (1976) Manufacturers focused on improving internal combustion engines. Hybrid vehicles retained engineers’ interests. By 1993, college students competed in the Ford Hybrid Electric Vehicle Challenge. Government regulations, such as those created by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), set low- and zero-emission standards to which automakers had to conform. Automobiles;hybrids
Hybrid automobiles
Honda Motor Company;Insight
[kw]First Hybrid Car Appears on the U.S. Market (Dec., 1999)
[kw]Hybrid Car Appears on the U.S. Market, First (Dec., 1999)
[kw]Car Appears on the U.S. Market, First Hybrid (Dec., 1999)
[kw]U.S. Market, First Hybrid Car Appears on the (Dec., 1999)
[kw]Market, First Hybrid Car Appears on the U.S. (Dec., 1999)
Hybrid automobiles
Honda Motor Company;Insight
[g]North America;Dec., 1999: First Hybrid Car Appears on the U.S. Market[10550]
[g]United States;Dec., 1999: First Hybrid Car Appears on the U.S. Market[10550]
[c]Engineering;Dec., 1999: First Hybrid Car Appears on the U.S. Market[10550]
[c]Transportation;Dec., 1999: First Hybrid Car Appears on the U.S. Market[10550]
[c]Energy;Dec., 1999: First Hybrid Car Appears on the U.S. Market[10550]
Yoshino, Hiroyuki
Toyoda, Eiji
Okuda, Hiroshi
Fukuo, Koichi
Wada, Akihiro
Uchiyamada, Takeshi
Lui, Erwin
Esmond, Don

In 1993, Toyota Motor Corporation Toyota Motor Corporation;Prius chairman Eiji Toyoda demanded that company engineers consider future automobile needs, initiating the G21 (for “global twenty-first century”) project. Executive vice president Akihiro Wada oversaw that project and hired Takeshi Uchiyamada as the project’s chief engineer. Wada suggested that Uchiyamada consider using hybrid powertrain systems for the G21, which was later renamed the Prius. Despite Toyota executives’ worries that a hybrid might be too costly to be profitable, Wada directed engineers to increase fuel efficiency to justify higher car costs. Toyota engineers evaluated computer simulations and prototypes to enhance technological features.

The 1999 Honda Insight, a hybrid car, achieved 61 miles per gallon of gasoline in city driving and 70 miles per gallon on the highway.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In the summer of 1995, Hiroshi Okuda, Toyota’s new president, told engineers that he expected the Prius to be in production and sold to Japanese consumers by December, 1997. Engineers strove to meet that goal, finding electrical aspects of the Toyota Hybrid System (THS) technologically challenging. They tested batteries in extreme temperatures at Japanese sites to resolve problems, including system failures.

At the U.S. division, Toyota Motor Sales (TMS) in Torrance, California, executives aware of CARB emissions requirements realized the new hybrids’ merits but were unsure about their commercial appeal. Newport Beach studio designer Erwin Lui submitted a Prius sedan design to a competition. Impressed Toyota executives arranged for him to work on a prototype in Japan during the summer of 1996.

In 1998, Toyota provided a Prius to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which evaluated the THS. The next year, TMS received a right-hand-drive Prius produced for Japanese drivers and conducted tests with Orange County consumers, whose criticisms were considered in design improvements for American drivers, in particular the steering column for left-hand steering. TMS executives, still unsure about who their potential hybrid buyers were, focused on such consumer concerns as car performance, appearance, and safety. Concerned how customers might react to unfamiliar powertrain technology, TMS personnel planned to educate dealers and mechanics regarding driving and servicing hybrids so that they could reassure buyers and explain that hybrids did not require plugging into power sources.

Aware of Toyota’s hybrid developments, Honda wanted its hybrid, Insight, sold in the United States before the Prius became available to North American consumers. In December, 1998, Honda executives stated that the company would introduce its gas-electric automobile in the fall of 1999, to meet demand for low-emission automobiles compatible with ideas concerning global warming expressed in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Koichi Fukuo, the Insight’s chief engineer, stressed the Insight’s economical size, noting how Honda engineers had developed aluminum chassis technology for the automobile based on the company’s experience building racing motorcycles and automobiles.

In December, 1999, Honda sold the first Insights in the United States. The vehicle’s sixty-seven-horsepower Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) gasoline engine compatible with ultra-low emission vehicle (ULEV) criteria was paired with a ten-kilowatt electric motor and nickel hydride batteries. The engine provided the Insight’s main power, with additional power provided by batteries. Braking recharged batteries by using energy usually released as heat. The five-speed Insight weighed approximately 1,875 pounds, included two passenger seats, and had a front-wheel drive. Insight dashboards included devices displaying engine conditions, battery charge, and miles driven per gallon of fuel.

The Insight’s aerodynamic shape also helped save fuel. Microprocessors monitored the hybrid’s power systems, turning off the engine at low speeds or shifting to neutral gear to conserve fuel. The engine restarted when the gear or clutch moved. According to road tests, the Insight achieved sixty-one miles per gallon in urban traffic and seventy miles per gallon on the highway. Various accounts from test drivers, such as Wes Raynal of AutoWeek magazine, reported that the vehicle traveled an estimated five hundred to six hundred miles per tank. The Insight received good safety ratings and was the first hybrid to meet CARB standards. Costing $18,880 without air conditioning and $20,080 with that feature, the Insight cost more than many drivers were willing to pay, especially because of the car’s limited seating and lack of storage space. U.S. consumers bought seventeen Insights during the first month after it was introduced and thirty-five hundred that first year.

When the Insight was exhibited at the January, 2000, North American International Auto Show, Honda president Hiroyuki Yoshino said that Honda would incorporate hybrid electric drive trains in additional vehicles. The Prius, on display at that Detroit show, received mixed reactions, with some consumers valuing its economical and environmental features and others considering hybrids impractical. In April, 2000, Don Esmond, vice president of the Toyota Group, U.S., spoke at the New York International Auto Show, where he promoted the Prius, describing the potential of hybrid powertrain systems. The Insight attracted attention in May, 2000, as the pace car for the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association’s Tour de Sol rally from New York City to Washington, D.C.

In July, 2000, Toyota introduced the Prius for sale in the United States. By that time, 35,000 Japanese drivers had purchased the hybrid vehicle. The Prius appealed to those interested in hybrids because it was more spacious than the Insight and included five seats. The Prius traveled only fifty-two miles per gallon in urban traffic and forty-five miles per gallon on the highway, in contrast to the higher mileage figures of the Insight, but its four-cylinder gasoline engine had an automatic transmission. Moreover, the Prius was classified as a super ultra-low emission vehicle (SULEV). Toyota sold the Prius for $19,995. By December, 2000, drivers had ordered 7,300 Priuses of the 12,000 Toyota had produced for that year. Toyota enjoyed a great deal of publicity when a number of celebrities bought Priuses and arrived in them at the Academy Awards.


As gasoline prices rose in the late twentieth century, so did demand for hybrid vehicles. Air pollution, political concerns regarding oil supplies, climate change, and tax incentives influenced many consumers to drive hybrid cars. Some political candidates promoted their hybrid use to emphasize their commitment to environmental issues. Rental car fleets included hybrids, raising awareness of the automobiles.

Both the Insight and Prius received awards for innovation. The Sierra Club praised them for their environmental engineering. Automotive organizations honored the Prius for its technology, and environmental groups, consumer advocates, and automobile publications recognized its fuel conservation value.

After introducing the Insight and Prius, Honda and Toyota appropriated hybrid powertrains for additional vehicle types such as minivans and the Honda Civic and Accord. The second-generation Prius in 2004 increased power with its Hybrid Synergy Drive, which decreased emissions by almost 30 percent from the first-generation Prius. In 2005, Honda sold only 666 Insights, in contrast to Toyota selling more than 100,000 Priuses. The next year, American Honda ceased making Insights. U.S. automakers, including Ford, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler, began making hybrid sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and trucks. Engineers strove to improve battery storage, experimenting with lithium ion. Those companies also focused on fuel cell research.

In 2000, American consumers purchased approximately 8,000 hybrid vehicles. In 2006, Americans purchased an estimated 200,000 hybrids, representing 1 percent of vehicles sold in the United States. Automobiles;hybrids
Hybrid automobiles
Honda Motor Company;Insight

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Curtis D., and Judy Anderson. Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. Examines political, cultural, and socioeconomic aspects of hybrid technology since the nineteenth century. Illustrations of Insight and Prius, powertrain design, and dashboard features.
  • Motavalli, Jim. Forward Drive: The Race to Build “Clean” Cars for the Future. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2000. Comments on Prius’s and Insight’s benefits while promoting fuel cell automotive technology.
  • Wakefield, Ernest H. History of the Electric Automobile: Hybrid Electric Vehicles. Warrendale, Pa.: Society of Automotive Engineers, 1998. Describes early Japanese hybrid work and the 1993 Ford Hybrid Electric Vehicle Challenge.
  • Westbrook, M. H. The Electric Car: Development and Future of Battery, Hybrid, and Fuel-Cell Cars. Warrendale, Pa.: Society of Automotive Engineers, 2001. Discusses the Insight and Prius and automotive engineering research to improve battery capabilities and meet low-emission standards while producing commercially appealing vehicles.
  • Yost, Nick. The Essential Hybrid Car Handbook: A Buyer’s Guide to Fuel-Saving, Planet-Saving, Fun-to-Drive Hybrids. Guilford, Conn.: Lyons Press, 2006. Includes comments from Insight and Prius owners and evaluations of various U.S. hybrid technologies based on the author’s test drives. Illustrations, sidebars, bibliography.

Automakers Introduce the Catalytic Converter

Japan Becomes the World’s Largest Automobile Producer

Yugo Begins Selling Cars in the United States

U.S. Law Mandates Use of Alternative Fuels

General Motors Sponsors a Solar-Powered Car Race