Last weekend, The New York Times reported an astonishing mineral discovery in Afghanistan that is believed to be valued at more than $1 trillion. While many in the investment community were quick to trumpet the impact this could have on miners and mineral producers, an underlooked investment opportunity has arisen in the automotive manufacturers.

More specifically, Afghanistan's vast deposits of lithium could play a key role in the push for greener car fleets, by making lithium-ion batteries cheaper to use in hybrid and electric vehicles.

While Toyota (NYSE: TM) has become the market leader in hybrid vehicle production, its Prius brand is operated by a nickel-metal hydride battery. A more abundant supply of lithium, coupled with Toyota's recent safety setbacks, might help lagging competitors that are beginning to research and produce vehicles operated by lithium-based batteries.

Lithium-ion-based batteries have double the storage capacity of the nickel-metal hydride battery packs featured in the Prius. The Nissan Leaf is the first vehicle operated by lithium-ion-based batteries to market domestically, and Hyundai plans to release its 2011 Sonata with a lithium-ion battery option.

Ford (NYSE: F) will release its first lithium-ion-battery vehicle later this year and Honda (NYSE: HMC) plans on releasing a vehicle with the same technology within the next three years.

Perhaps the biggest detriment to the sales of lithium-ion-based hybrid vehicles is the high cost of manufacturing, which can be attributed in part to the finding and production costs of lithium. However, if these Afghanistan deposits are developed correctly, production of the element will increase, and when combined with technological advances, battery prices should drop.

What do you think? Will these lithium resources play a significant role in the transformation of the automotive industry, or are battery-based vehicles not practical on a large scale for carmakers? Let us know in the comments box below.