With global climate change arguments still raging in politics and the general public, environmentalism in the United States is in many ways far behind other nations. In the U.S., the question continues to be “does global climate change exist?” instead of “how can the process be slowed or undone?” Our nation lags behind progressive European countries, which have been placing strict energy mandates and lofty, impressive future goals. One fact that liberals and conservatives agree upon, primarily from a financial perspective, is that petroleum is not a viable energy source for the future. It’s a limited natural resource that cannot forever fuel the nation’s industrial, transportation and personal energy needs.
American and foreign automakers have begun to embrace alternative energy sources. Hybrid and electric vehicles continue to take larger market shares, threatening to eventually overtake their conventional gas-powered counterparts. According to a company press release, Toyota sold its one-millionth Prius hybrid in the U.S. on April 5. Prius vehicles have accounted for almost 60 percent of passenger hybrid sales. This sales benchmark clearly demonstrates that hybrid cars and other alternatively powered vehicles have an established market in the U.S. The public’s demand for hybrid vehicles like the Prius and its forthcoming variants is an indicator that environmental consciousness is catching on — or people are anxious about the rising cost of gasoline and looking for an alternative. As consumers continue to support the hybrid market, automakers can invest more in the research and development of more efficient, next-generation technologies.
Several times a year, automakers show off their latest designs and technologies in the form of concept cars at auto shows, including the successful North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Concept cars are generally not intended for production — they draw publicity for a company. In recent years, it has become fashionable for automakers to outfit concept cars with the latest — and usually unrealistic — hybrid, electric or fuel cell underpinnings. These innovative technologies rarely become production vehicles. Automakers need to go beyond paying lip service to alternatively powered vehicles. They need to work on getting inexpensive and more readily available technologies on the road, and invest profits in research and development, instead of spending money on concepts that are unrealistic to implement. As several failed projects demonstrate, this progressive attitude is risky. Automakers, however, must take this risk in order to stay on the path toward a sustainable future.
The European Union is moving to ban gasoline-powered vehicles by 2050. While the political climate in America may not be conducive to a similar policy, consumer demand can put automakers on that path. As Prius and other fuel-efficient vehicle sales demonstrate, a growing demographic of the population is ready to embrace environmentally friendly technology. Hybrid and electric cars, such as the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, cannot remain as mere novelties. The public must fully embrace more efficient transportation options. Consumer habits will reward companies that are environmentally conscious and produce innovative, green products that are affordable for the average American family.