I wonder why something so important must take so long. I'm referring to the need to move from our current fuel-guzzling cars to those capable of taking us farther -- lots farther -- on a tank of gas.

It appears that current technology could make it possible for many of us to rarely need to start our internal combustion engines. But with gasoline prices sitting above $3 in most places -- and likely headed higher -- Ford (NYSE: F) and General Motors (NYSE: GM) are taking their sweet time rolling out the new goodies.

Time for a charge
But there may ultimately be a hero here. On Monday, Toyota (NYSE: TM) President Katsuaki Watanabe indicated at the Detroit Auto Show that his company, which is about to motor past GM as the world's largest auto manufacturer, was also turning up the heat on the introduction of "plug-in" electric cars. GM's Chevy Volt will cover up to 40 miles -- well within commuting range of most of us -- on rechargeable battery power, before the internal combustion power plant even has to be started. They can then be recharged through a simple overnight plug-in.

Meanwhile, Toyota isn't the only plug-in game in town. Privately held AFS Trinity Power Corporation has developed what it bills as a 150-miles-per-gallon "Extreme Hybrid." Trinity, which has apparently conducted energy storage and powers systems programs for the likes of NASA, Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT), and Honeywell (NYSE: HON), says it will attempt to license its technology to one of the big car companies. If it's unable to do so, it will raise funds and go it alone as a modifier of existing hybrids or a manufacturer of cars.

The company believes that production models could be available in three years. It also says it has solved the two key impediments to widespread usage of plug-in technology: providing enough power for rapid acceleration and isolated fires involving lithium batteries.

Moving toward the objective
Toyota's Watanabe said that his company doesn't want to lose in the development of new technology. Indeed, it'll soon build a factory for the production of lithium-ion batteries. He expects Toyota to test-market a fleet of plug-ins by late 2010.

For its part, GM's management has called that timeframe for the rollout of its Volt, a rechargeable vehicle it has in development, "a big stretch." For its part, Ford's avowed timeframe for plug-in development and testing apparently involves "several years." In related efforts, Honda (NYSE: HMC), BMW, and others are also in the development stages of hydrogen-powered vehicles.

All this is good news. I, for one, would love to see more fire from GM and Ford on the plug-in front -- not battery fire, mind you, but fire in management's bellies. I also recognize, however, that reengineering can't be accomplished overnight.

Push the incentives
In the past, I've recommended a Manhattan Project-style commission to attempt to deal with our worsening energy circumstances. It seems that such a group could be limited to automobile executives and -- jaundiced as I am about recommending this second crew -- Washington types.

But while I'm waiting for the stars to align on that front, I'll take a moment to admire the spunk being displayed by Toyota. It also doesn't hurt that this large innovator offers up a single-digit forward P/E and an above-market 2.2% dividend yield.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith is shopping for a hybrid car, but he doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He does welcome your comments or questions. The Fool has a disclosure policy that never loses its charge.