In the near term, expect an increasing number of hybrid models to choose from at your dealer's lot. The plug-in Chevy Volt boasts a 40-mile, gas-free driving range, and the Fisker Karma offers great looks and plug-in range, though at a price. A plug-in version of the Toyota Prius with lithium-ion batteries is winning friends also, and yet another plug-in hybrid is Ford's C-MAX utility vehicle (there's also a conventional hybrid version, but in a sign of the times, no gasoline edition) .
We count more than 40 hybrids of all types either on the market or coming soon. Some notables include the Honda CR-Z and Insight, the Lexus CT200h, the Ford Fusion (with the Energi as the plug-in hybrid edition), the Porsche Cayenne and no less than three other Prius models.
What lies in the more distant future? Automakers are tinkering with all sorts of combinations of fuels, including solar, electric, biodiesel, hydrogen, compressed natural gas and fuel-cell technology.
Further down the road, fuel cells will be the next big step in electric-powered cars. Fuel cells safely create electricity from hydrogen in a chemical reaction -- and that electricity is used to power the electric motor. The beauty of this technology is that the only thing coming out of the tailpipe is water vapor. But it also has some major drawbacks. Right now, fuel cells are incredibly expensive and complex. Then, there's the lack of a hydrogen fuel production and distribution infrastructure. And how do you get the hydrogen? Burn fossil fuels to split the "H2" off from the "O?" Some say it could cost $500,000 per filling station to install the necessary equipment. Four automakers -- Toyota, Honda, Daimler and Hyundai have actually pledged to commercialize fuel-cell cars by 2015, but they won't be available everywhere -- Europe, Japan and California are likely locations where these exotics will roll out. Whether costs will come down enough for it to be a real production vehicle is yet to be known.
The big question is whether other technologies will offer similar mileage and emissions cleanliness at lower prices. Right now, for example, you can still get a traditional gas-powered Honda Civic that gets up to 39 MPG on the highway, and costs several thousand dollars less than the hybrid version of the same exact car. That's a pretty good deal, especially if the majority of your driving is on the highway, where the hybrid technology provides minimal advantage.
Finally, there are diesel options. While still not as clean as a gasoline engine, the diesel VW Jetta TDI gets 42 MPG on the highway. "Flex-Fuel" (Ethanol/E85) cars offer another alternative. They're cheaper to produce and require low-cost infrastructure changes at the pump. But, right now, ethanol fuel relies heavily on corn, which has gone through some wide price fluctuations -- and is not an especially good fuel, from a global-warming perspective. Flex-fuel vehicles also burn more fuel than traditional gas-powered cars. These two factors make the cost savings for drivers minimal. There is hope that using various grasses and plant waste as a fuel source rather than corn will bring down the costs of cellulosic fuels. For more information, check out Car Talk's Alternative Fuels section. For people who want to do their part, without spending an extra couple grand, cars like these are providing serious competition to hybrids -- alas, without any of the Ed Begley glamour.