In the early 1980s, Detroit bowed to government, media and sales pressures caused by gas prices hitting the equivalent of $3 per gallon.

It rushed into production numerous innovative technologies to dramatically improve fuel economy. Please, don't do it again.

I say that only half jokingly. General Motors was the most aggressive, tried the hardest and spent the most money in the 1970s and 1980s. It ended up getting burned the worst.

GM used crash programs to develop a brand new diesel engine for cars and a cylinder-deactivation system for V-8 gas engines. They were daring, inspired ideas.

Chairman Roger B. Smith was so enamored with diesel's inherent efficiencies he once proclaimed that 25% of GM cars would eventually have them under the hood.

Then, disaster struck. Both engines had terrible reliability problems. The diesel was too much of a rush job, and 1980s electronics and fuel-management systems were not up to handling the demands of cylinder deactivation. The troubles damaged GM's reputation and alienated customers long after gas prices went back down. It paid a very dear price for being a front-runner in the fuel-economy race.

So far, hybrid-electric vehicle (HEV) technology looks relatively reliable, and it should be implemented. But auto makers are right to hedge their bets with joint development efforts, such as the one being pursued by GM, DaimlerChrysler and BMW. And no one should apologize for first implementing mild-hybrid systems that use only some elements of a “full” hybrid, such as start-stop systems.

Because most of the critics in the media and environmental community will be the first to attack auto makers if HEVs fail to live up to unreasonable expectations, mild hybrids are a prudent way to start.

But auto makers need to shift attention from the idea of developing a “silver bullet” to solve fuel economy woes, whether it is hybrids, diesels or fuel cells. Focus instead on the myriad technologies available that will incrementally improve conventional engines. A huge amount of progress still can be made.

While talk of hybrids dominated the Frankfurt auto show last month, an almost indignant Valeo executive told reporters his company alone could deliver 80% of HEV fuel savings at 20% of the cost. There were dozens of other suppliers like Valeo touting relatively mundane components, such as electric water pumps, that promise small savings that can add up to a lot (see page 24).

On the Valeo list are such things as a more efficient air-conditioning compressor and a start-stop system that already is in production.

The most dramatic technology and fuel savings offered by Valeo is an electromagnetic valve actuation system that replaces conventional cams. The system reduces pumping losses and can control combustion so precisely, it can reduce fuel consumption by 15%-20% and give gasoline engines diesel-like low-end torque.

Sound too risky? Valeo offers a “half camless” version that only operates inlet valves.

I'm not trying to drag down hybrids. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Let's take them one at a time.