I keep talking about great companies planning way ahead so that they're ready for the next revolution when it comes, leaving less-visionary competitors in the dust. Well, I'm not quite done yet.

Who do you consider innovative in the car industry? Is it Ford (NYSE:F), for standardizing on a handful of car platforms, or for rolling out a few hybrid and ethanol-powered models? Is it General Motors (NYSE:GM), thanks to the rather advanced fuel cell program? Or maybe you're thinking of Honda (NYSE:HMC) and its low-emission diesel engine project?

These are all admirable initiatives, and our cars will eventually become better, cheaper, and more efficient for all of these reasons. But all of these great companies have been several steps behind Toyota (NYSE:TM) for years.

The American carmakers are new to the hybrid game, while Honda and Toyota are veterans already and in their third or fourth generations of hybrid designs. Toyota has had a fuel cell program going since 1992, with working prototypes as early as 1996. It's also working on engines that run on natural gas or liquid hydrogen, alongside its own clean diesel project. But it's the way that company CEO Katsuaki Watanabe thinks about the future that really makes Toyota exciting.

Toyota Motor North America president Jim Press, in a speech this week to the National Press Club in Washington, said Watanabe's dream "is to create cars of the future that can travel across the U.S. on one tank of fuel, clean the air while they are being driven, and prevent accidents and injuries." Chew on that one for a while. It's clearly not a goal that will be met next year, probably not even next decade. That's fine with Watanabe. He wants to make the perfect car and is willing to take risks and plan ahead to make it happen.

Oil companies can pull their weight in this quest, too, and they are indeed trying. But Toyota has been actively trying to solve these problems for years, putting plenty of yen into the process, all the while arguably producing real-world cars that are closer to what consumers actually want than any other car maker.

That's how you become great. Hang your goals out there, way ahead, and do your best to reach them. If you reach for the stars, maybe you'll get to the treetops first. The stars can wait for later.

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Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns a tiny piece of GM but doesn't hold any position in the other companies mentioned today. His family is on its third Toyota now. Foolish disclosure is the wave of the future. Check out Anders' holdings for yourself.