Ask consumers what they think of hybrids—those half-gas, half-electric cars—and they’ll say they’re all for fuel-efficient vehicles that are better for the environment, but they really can’t afford them.  Not yet, anyway.  But this could change.

Prices have started coming down. The 2010 Honda Insight was touted as going for less than $20,000, which is quite a drop-down from what hybrids have been going for thus far. Although hybrids only account for about 3% of the cars on the road today, it’s anticipated that the lower price tag will contribute to their popularity.

This isn’t well known about consumers, but hybrids hit the market more than 100 years ago. Henry Ford manufactured a hybrid, but the patent went to H. Piper a year later. Piper’s ambition was to construct a car that could get 25 miles to the gallon.  Progress was delayed when the first true hybrid car, the Woods Interurban Hybrid of 1905, took about 15 whole minutes to switch from the electric motor to a two-cylinder gas-powered engine.

Not surprisingly, that hybrid didn’t sell. In 1910, a four-cylinder gas engine powering a generator was produced.  This eliminated the need for a transmission and a battery pack.  This innovation, together with the Woods Hybrid, formed the basis for the development of many of today’s hybrids.  Six years later, it was rumored that a hybrid had been manufactured which was able to achieve 48 miles per gallon, but it did not attract many consumers.

Hybrids didn’t really take off until Honda introduced the first hybrid car to the Canadian/U.S. market, the 2-door Insight.  It received several awards, including one for best mileage: 70 miles to the gallon on the highway.

In 2000, Toyota released the crowd-pleasing Prius to eager American consumers. (It had first been unveiled to Japanese consumers in 1997. Eighteen thousand units were sold in the first year.)

By then, consumers were largely aware of the importance of reducing the global carbon footprint.  An interesting note: the hybrid engine that many engineers base their design on is a reproduction of one that was developed in 1960.  That was the year that TRW manufactured the electromechanical transmission which, like the Woods and the four-cylinder gas engine, served as a foundation of sorts for hybrids.

In 2004, the Prius won the 2004 Motor Trend car of the year award, and the hybrid was on its way toward becoming part of the automobile industry’s hallmark selections.  In fact, demand exceeds supply; consumers who want a Prius are forced to place their name on a waiting list.

In 2008, when gas prices surged to all-time highs, there was an unprecedented clamor for hybrids.  Sales in the U.S. were reported to be up over 27%, according to monthly sales figures from auto manufacturers.  Over 22,000 units were ordered and sold in the month of January in 2008.  That month, although the Prius was still leading the pack with over 11,000 units sold, the Camry Hybrid, Hylander Hybrid, Ford Escape and the Mercury Mariner also increased in sales.

Among hybrids which retained a respectable segment of the market during that same time period were the Lexus RX 400h luxury utility vehicle, the LS 600h L Hybrid luxury sedan, the GS 450h, the Honda Civic Hybrid, the Accord Hybrid, and the Nissan Altima.

Some consumers are waiting to see how Plug-Ins fare.  President Barack Obama has been quoted as saying he’d like to put one million plug-in hybrids on the roads by the year 2015.  Plug-ins can be connected to an electrical wall outlet overnight to charge the hybrid, so the driver can drive in electric mode. Then, after driving a set number of hours, the car will switch over from battery power so that it runs on either gas or another fuel.

Whether it’s “straight hybrids” which have taken a century to be mass produced, or plug-ins, the latest in hybrid technology, it seems that hybrids are here to stay.