Current fuel economy regulation laws state that by 2015 cars should be able to run 31.6 miles per gallon. By 2020, they need to hit 35 mpg. That's not an easy proposition for GM's SUVs and trucks.
"We are not only working on new technologies that will break through and lead us in the future, but we have to improve our current product portfolio quite a bit," Wagoner said. "I think with this technology, we are going to lead the world, and our desire is to lead the whole industry to the next plateau."
There are some skeptics out there, such as George McGregor, president of the United Auto Workers Local 22 labor union in Detroit, Mich., who believes it will take a revolution for the majority of Americans to accept a plug-in car like the Volt.
"I think it's true to say that some consumers will adapt more slowly than others, but from the reaction I've seen … I don't think we will have any problem," Wagoner said. "I think people will be lined up to get into this kind of vehicle."
General Motors may be hoping electric cars will energize the industry. But there is another way: hydrogen.
"It's phenomenally clean," said Tom Baloga, vice president of engineering at BMW. By 2012, just two years after Volt hits the market, BMW plans to introduce the Hydrogen 7, a hybrid that can run on ultra-clean liquid hydrogen. The company is testing 22 of these vehicles in the United States.
BMW's hydrogen-powered car runs on both gasoline and hydrogen fuel, and can go about 125 miles per tank of hydrogen, compared to the Volt's 40 miles on its initial electrical charge. Hydrogen burns clean and emits only water, but the fuel used by BMW for its test vehicles is extracted from natural gas, a fossil fuel. Hydrogen can also be made from water in a process powered by electricity, but the technology still has a long way to go before it is efficient.
"Today, using a battery is more efficient than using hydrogen, but we have to think about the future," Baloga said. "We have to think about the big picture. Where do we need to be in the year 2050? 2060? 2070?"
In addition to fuel, there is the problem of infrastructure. Hydrogen fueling stations will need to be built across the country. BMW says they are coming up with the technology to make a hydrogen-powered car possible, and it will be up to Congress, business and the public to develop the rest.
And of course, there's the cost. The projected sticker price of the BMW Hydrogen 7 is more than $100,000. The Chevy Volt will be about $30,000.
"The combination of battery electric vehicles and hydrogen powered vehicles is probably what the future holds," said Baloga.
So for now, the fastest route to a greener future seems to be electric.
ABC News' Carrie McGourty contributed to this report.