I just flew back from the Society of Automotive Engineers first-ever North American International Powertrain Conference in Toronto.

The event brought together a multitude of experts from many different disciplines from the four corners of the Earth. It was a watershed event for me. Here's a quick rundown of what I brought back:

  • It doesn't matter what side of the global-warming argument you fall on. So many governments around the world (including California) are mandating carbon dioxide reduction that every auto maker has to get on board. They have no choice. Here's the real scary part. No amount of hybrids, clean diesels or other green technologies will get the job done. Only hydrogen or biofuels provide the sustainable, long-term solution to reducing CO2 in the atmosphere.
  • Our oil situation is far more tenuous than I realized. Market demand is about to exceed our ability to pump it out of the ground fast enough. Translation: oil prices will go higher. Worse yet, global oil reserves will start to drop in roughly 20 years. I came out of this conference with a decided sense of urgency.
  • There's no near-term silver bullet, so the auto industry is working on a multitude of technologies. It's a good news/bad news situation. The good news is there are a lot of different engines, transmissions and fuels we can turn to. The bad news is this hodgepodge of choices scares consumers.
  • Marketing and advertising will play a key role in convincing consumers to buy this technology. Yet most consumers are wary of anything that takes them out of their comfort zone. Auto makers need to figure out how to market these technologies as brilliantly as, say, Chrysler has marketed the Hemi.
  • Diesel engines can play an important near-term role in the U.S. and can meet the Environmental Protection Agency's stringent new Tier II Bin 5 emission standards. But they need urea-injection systems to reduce excess oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulates. The EPA frowns on this idea because it requires an occasional visit to the dealership to refill a special canister with the urea solution. Because the engine runs just fine if the urea container runs dry (though at higher emission levels), the EPA fears drivers won't keep it replenished.

Come on! We need action now. The U.S. has to have a “Plan B.” Hurricane Katrina revealed just how tenuous our oil supply is. Next time it could be terrorists blocking off the straights of Hormuz, or an anti-American government deciding it won't sell us oil. It's going to take years to develop significant levels of alternative fuels. Better get started.

Plan B is going to need thoughtful involvement from auto makers, energy providers, politicians, regulators, environmentalists and private citizens. That's a messy business, but it is, after all, the essence of what makes our democracy, our free-market economy and our culture so powerful.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit and Speed Channel.