When Toyota unveiled its first hybrid vehicle nearly a decade ago, many people were skeptical about its future as environmentally friendly gas-and-electric-powered engine dramatically boosts mileage.
Today, Japan's biggest automaker is scrambling to keep up with the growing demand for hybrids, especially in North America, where soaring oil prices now double from several years ago are suddenly making hybrids an attractive cost-saving alternative.
But the greatest demand is for the Toyota Prius, which debuted in 1997 as the first commercially mass-produced hybrid. In the United States, the waiting list to buy one has grown to three or four months, the company says.
Hybrids deliver great mileage by using the electric motor at slower speeds and then switching to the gas engine when the speed picks up enough for the engine to reduce pollution and deliver a more efficient drive. The vehicles charge their motor batteries while on the go.
The latest Prius gets 60 miles per gallon (25.3 kilometers per liter) in the city and 51 mpg (21.6 kilometers per liter) on the highway, according to the U.S. government.
Demand has grown to the point where Toyota plans to raise annual production of hybrids to 400,000 vehicles next year from 300,000 this year.
Executive Vice President Kazuo Okamoto, overseeing research and development, brushed off recent reported speculation that Toyota Motor Corp. may be locking in suppliers to maintain its domination over the burgeoning hybrid market.
Toyota Executive Vice President Akio Toyoda sensed the tide turning on the doubts about hybrids earlier this year. Until then, the prevailing view was that hybrids are a tiny minority among the various options to reduce greenhouse emissions, he said.
"This year, we see the hybrid being treated as a very important option," Toyoda told The Associated Press.
Okamoto, Toyota's research executive, acknowledged the jump in hybrid demand was a pleasant surprise for the sales division.
"But from the start, we engineers believed in the hybrid's potential," he said, reports the AP.