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Since the launch of Green Car Journal in 1992, it’s been clear to me that environmental compatibility isn’t just a passing phase. Today, the most forceful drivers of change are the need to mitigate carbon emissions and reduce mankind’s potential impacts on our global climate. But long before that, there were other imperatives already prompting a rethinking of mobility and how it was affecting our collective lives.

Urban areas were often choked with smog, the result of far too many vehicles on the road,  with levels of tailpipe emissions that would be unthinkable today. Major cities across the country were in non-compliance with air quality standards. Smog alerts recommending limited outdoor activity were an unfortunate and regular occurrence in major cities and regions. I lived this growing up in the greater metropolitan L.A. area, as the smog from Los Angeles migrated some 50 miles eastward and stopped at the San Gabriel Mountains two miles from my home, causing the mountain range to magically disappear in the haze every summer.

Still, there were bright spots amid the haze. California launched its Low Emission Vehicle Program in 1990, mandating cleaner vehicles in the years ahead. Part of this landmark program was the Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate that helped accelerate electric vehicle research and development, and ultimately drove auto manufacturers to get serious about vehicle electrification.

An important part of Green Car Journal’s mission over the years has been to explain the benefits and characteristics of ‘green’ cars of all types, regardless of their approach to better environmental impact. In the end, the goal has always been to present an overview of the directions, technologies, and fuels being explored, dive down into specifics, and enable readers to make up their own minds on what’s important based on what they learn.  

A complementary part of this has been the Green Car Awards, starting with the magazine’s annual Green Car of the Year® award first presented at the L.A. Auto Show in 2005. Green Car Journal editors conduct significant research every year to review the universe of new models to consider as the ‘best-of-the-best’ that exhibit commendable environment performance. Through an extensive vetting process, the field is narrowed down to five finalists for each award category. The goal has remained the same since that first award program in 2005 – recognize vehicles that significantly raise the bar in environmental performance and exhibit environmental leadership.

When it comes to positive change, leadership is important. A new direction acknowledging the automobile’s impact on our environment is important. New and better choices that speak to our future are important. These are among the compelling reasons why the Green Car Awards exist.

In the early years of the Green Car Awards, there were relatively few truly worthy vehicles to be considered. But change, though slow, has been ongoing. Now our cities and streets benefit from an ever-growing number of vastly more efficient, lower emission, and environmentally positive vehicle choices powered by advanced or electrified powerplants. Today, ‘green’ cars have come into their own through design, innovation, and consumer desire. That last part is crucial. Auto manufacturers have done a good job of bringing an increasing number of advanced and electrified vehicles to market. They have invested heavily, even subsidizing some models’ real cost along the way, to make them approachable to buyers.  But a serious and sustained desire for these vehicles had been lacking…until now.

Thankfully, the tipping point for ‘green’ cars is now behind us. While not all new car buyers are in the market for a high efficiency, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or electric vehicle, the numbers are no longer small, and they’re growing significantly. Interest and demand are up. Consumers are eager to know more and they want to understand which vehicles, and manufacturers, are leading the field. And we’re proud that our annual Green Car Awards help deliver this critical information.

Model year 2012 was a record breaking year for green cars. Average fuel economy (23.6 mpg), conventional hybrid sales (399,782), and plug-in electric sales (37,753) all hit historic highs. As a result of steadily rising fuel efficiency over the last five years, American drivers will use over two billion gallons less gasoline and cut their fuel bills by over $8 billion in 2012.

Unfortunately, in this sea of good news, there are still those who criticize the clearly successful government policies that have fostered this outcome.

Consider the case of plug-in electrics. Detractors like to focus on their sales as a percentage of total auto sales, but instead the focus should be on the incredible growth in sales this year in this sector and that the trends are in the right direction.

In the first nine months of 2012, electric vehicle sales increased an astounding 178 percent in the U.S.  over the first nine months of 2011. The number of hybrid and electric models available on the market increased in 2012 by 10 and about 15 more models are expected in 2013.

Instead of focusing on the bankruptcy of A123 systems, the focus should on the fact that the U.S. now has a healthier advanced battery manufacturing industry and that the A123 automotive technology, products, customer contracts, and its two Michigan factories will stay in the U.S., thanks to its purchase by Johnson Controls.

The bottom line is that overall, the government strategy to support the market for green cars through consumer incentives, retooling loans and providing long-term pollution and fuel efficiency standards is already paying off.

But particularly with new technology such as plug-ins, it takes time to reach critical mass. When first introduced, cell phones were more rare than California Condors, but now they're more like pigeons – everywhere.

Survey after survey shows fuel efficiency is key to auto purchases. With electrics able to deliver the equivalent of running on $1 per gallon gasoline, consumers becoming more familiar with the technology, more models entering the market, and prices continuing to drop, the future is bright for electrics.

Roland Hwang is Transportation Program Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council