The evolution of the auto industry has been no less than amazing. I have witnessed this first-hand while documenting the advent of ‘green’ cars over two decades at Green Car Journal and at Motor Trend before that. We had electric cars back in the 1990s as we do now, battling for acceptance, with other alternative fuels also jockeying for position amid an expansive field of conventional vehicles. Things change, things stay the same…although the numbers have improved for electrics.
While not particularly ‘green’ in earlier years, the automotive field did show early inclinations toward efficiency, particularly after the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s and oil disruptions of the 1980s. That was short lived as gasoline disruptions eased and gas was again plentiful and cheap. It was the 1990s, though, when industry and consumer interest in ‘green’ kicked into high gear.
The advancement of ‘green’ vehicles has largely been driven by the State of California, which has long required new vehicles to run cleaner than those meeting federal standards, a nod to the state’s epic half-century battle with urban smog. California has led the way in recent times with its milestone low emission vehicle program and its requirements for ever-cleaner running cars meeting seemingly impossible emissions goals. All this led to more stringent federal standards and, along the way, internal combustion vehicles with near-zero tailpipe emissions. It also hastened the introduction of hybrids and battery electric cars.
Early on, interest in greener cars was primarily driven by concerns such as tailpipe emissions, air quality, and petroleum dependence, the latter focused on resource depletion, the environmental cost of petroleum production, and significant dependence on imported oil. But that has evolved. The release of multiple studies singling out CO2 emissions as a major contributor to climate change added yet another reason to demand cleaner cars, with carbon emissions now a focal point. New regulations requiring much higher fuel economy in the years ahead – accomplishing the multiple goals of reducing petroleum use and lowering CO2 emissions through higher efficiency – have helped change the dynamic as well, as have the shockingly high gas prices seen late last decade. Together, they created the perfect storm for ‘green’ cars.
The cumulative result of regulations and incentives – plus an auto industry increasingly looking at ‘green’ not only as a requirement but as a market advantage – is a field of greener choices at new car showrooms. We now have internal combustion vehicles with near-zero emissions. A growing number of vehicle models are hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery electric cars with a few gaseous fuel models as well. The vast majority, however, are conventional vehicles that are worlds better than those of the past – gasoline and clean diesel models that achieve 35, 40, and 45 mpg or better with 50+ mpg clearly on the horizon.
While electric vehicles are often the topic du jour, it’s evident that new car buyers want the ability to pick their path to a greener driving future, choosing the vehicle, powertrain, and fuel that make them comfortable in their daily journeys. It has been satisfying to witness the auto industry’s decades-long evolution that’s now enabling consumers to do just that.