To quote the dry humor of law professor, auto enthusiast and blogger Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds, "This is the Twenty First Century."
During the 1960's, and apart from the "low-hanging fruit" of the PCV system of recycling the crankcase blowby gas into the intake, achieving adequate emission control from automobiles was thought to be impossible, especially to address the photochemical smog and everyone have a cold or sinus infection they never got over or worse in Southern California. That is when people were thinking about dusting off the Doble patents to bring back condensing steam cars with flash boiler or gas turbines or Stiring engines or even electric cars -- electric cars, not for "peak oil" or "climate change" or "making better use of renewables" reasons but for point-source smog reasons.
What happened next was the invention of the catalytic converter and the transition to lead-free gasoline, which some in the auto industry thought would never happen, could never happen, it did happen, if not for the catalytic converter then for the concern about lead levels in people. By the 70's, the thought was that these alternative engines would never get off the ground whereas the emissions from gasoline auto engines could be reduced.
But it was a near thing, the emission regs coming out of the Clean Air Act put the automakers into crisis mode, and 70's cars were awful from the standpoint of guzzling gas, even the newly introduced small cars to address the "oil crisis", and their power was feeble and they did odd things when you mashed on the gas pedal.
But then the electronics industry came up with cheap microprocessors, and the 3-way catalyst offered control over the challenging NOx emissions while at the same time restoring fuel economy, drivability, and even a little bit more performance in the bargain by the 1980's. The auto companies also learned how to push on their suppliers to make multi-port fuel injection systems with air meters and exhaust-gas oxygen sensor feedback control a mass production item rather something only found on exotic, expensive cars.
In the mean time, there must have been a ton of engineering research over the years leading to the present time, done in-house at the auto companies and also in university labs, whose students in turn found employment at these companies upon graduation. In the 70's, there was a lot of not-invented-here at the big car companies where they regarded research on their bread-and-butter product outside their walls as the crack pottery of independent inventors, in their estimation, but judging by the work on combustion taking place here at the U, the car companies must have figured out how to build the needed partnerships with the big research universities.
So we are not driving some tail-finned gas-turbine-powered flying Jetson's car as some had envisioned for today's time, and at some level cars are pretty much the way they were in the 1960's -- frameless monocoque construction (apart from frame-rail pickup trucks using 50's construction), cars largely made of steel, high-compression gasoline engine, and so on. A person asleep since 1960 would notice that cars are style differently but might be disappointed how little they have changed.
But everyday cars have fuel injection, they are computer controlled, the tires are much, much better, the brakes are electronically enhanced. There is also the accumulation of 40-50 years of incremental improvements made by the car companies engineering staffs and their academic research partners. Emissions control was once thought unobtainable in the 60's and a panic situation in the 70's and at least for gasoline (not Diesels), a solved problem? Improving fuel economy was thought impossible in the 70's, a panic in the 1980's, and maybe a panic today to meet Mr. Obama's fuel economy goals, but maybe some breathing space under Mr. Trump to get to where eventually we need to be?
Many years have gone by now, we still have internal combustion automobiles, almost mostly, the challenges of pollution and dwindling oil supplies as well as the worries about CO2 affecting the climate have been around for a long time, and the engineers have been hard at work over that long time. The automobile is also enough of a mass-market item that the funding for that hard work could be spread over many individual automobile sales.
The problem with the Diesel electric locomotive is that it is a much smaller market the funds a much smaller engineering effort, and maybe the thought was "the millions and millions of cars make smog, who is going to worry about a few thousand railroad locomotives", and especially EMD got caught in "panic time" meeting Tier 4. The Tier 4 locomotives (along with the OTR truck engines also subject to these rules) are like the 70's cars?
If GM "killed the electric car", what am I doing standing next to an EV-1, a half a block from the WSOR tracks?