American carsin park

Ford and GM have been slow to grasp the importance of more efficient cars.

The 1992 Energy Policy Act set a goal that one-third of all cars should be running on alternative fuels by 2010. Now, with that date looming only three years away, the Department of Energy has proposed to extend the deadline to 2030. The reason is clear: We aren’t even close to the progress that was hoped for in 1992. The electric car is all but forgotten and hydrogen fuel-cell cars are decades from mass production. Even the gas-electric hybrid has been slow to catch on. The ’90s was supposed to be the decade when this emerging technology came to light, but instead, it birthed a rather different sort of vehicle: the SUV.

The high-profit, low-mileage SUV was where American automakers focused their efforts, and because gasoline prices in the ’90s were low by today’s standards, the car-buying public wasn’t really demanding alternative-fuel cars. But now, with gas regularly topping $3 per gallon this summer, demand for SUVs has waned. Because Ford and General Motors have been slow to grasp the importance of more efficient cars, they’ll have catching up to do if they want to stay competitive.

Meanwhile, Toyota and Honda have spent the past decade developing new ways to make their cars more efficient. Toyota’s Prius is far and away the best-selling hybrid car, and this summer, Honda made another promising advancement – a diesel engine that produces fewer greenhouse gases than regular gasoline engines and increases fuel efficiency by 25 percent to 40 percent. The traditional problem with diesel fuel has been the smog-forming pollutants released in the exhaust, most recognizable to us as that black exhaust billowing out of trucks and semis. This engine uses a new converter system removes harmful nitrogen oxide. While diesel isn’t an alternative fuel, this engine is an example of the necessary refinement and innovation that must be done if we are ever to reach the goal.

American automakers, Congress and the Department of Energy might try to dig in their heels for another 20 years, but the American people who will be paying both with their wallet and their environment for this shortsightedness should not be so patient.