General Motors Corp. calls it the Hy-wire: a car that puts fuel-cell technology in a futuristic body. It lacks foot pedals and a traditional steering wheel.
It scoots along on a skateboard-like chassis containing everything that runs the car, including hydrogen fuel cells that power an electric motor. The driver controls the Hy-wire by twisting handgrips to accelerate, squeezing them to brake and tilting them to steer. In a test drive, the ride was smooth and quiet.
"This is a reinvention of the automobile," said Scott Fosgard, GM's communications director for advanced technology vehicles.
The Hy-wire was one of the stars of the show this week when automakers displayed 100 vehicles powered by electric motors, hybrid engines, fuel cells and other eco-friendly technologies aimed at reducing pollution and boosting fuel economy.
Automakers say fuel cells could reach the market within a decade and eliminate today's internal-combustion engine as a source of air pollution.
"The industry is moving toward cleaner, lower-emission vehicles. Many alternatives for the consumer will be available as the industry continues its progress," said Ron Musgnug, project leader for the event, known as Challenge Bibendum - named after the puffy mascot of sponsor Michelin.
But environmentalists say the auto show, complete with test-drive opportunities at Sonoma's Infineon Raceway just north of San Francisco, clouds the pollution debate.
Although encouraged by the long-term potential of these next-generation technologies, they complain that automakers keep opposing higher fuel-efficiency standards - and keep selling gas-guzzling SUVs.
"The auto companies are using these long-term solutions like hydrogen fuel cells to distract us from these near-term options," said Roland Hwang, a vehicle technology expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"If the auto industry was serious about reducing our petroleum dependency, it would support raising fuel-efficiency standards at the national level," Hwang added.
Carmakers are investing billions to develop more eco-friendly vehicles to meet stricter standards on auto emissions and fuel efficiency. But so far only hybrid cars, which combine battery power and the internal-combustion engine, have reached the market.
Environmentalists are impatient for more consumer choices.
"There will be a market for this technology, but it's still in its infancy stages," said Mike Wall, an automobile analyst at CSM Worldwide in Farmington Hills, Mich.
Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. introduced the first hybrid cars three years ago, but the market is still small because hybrids are relatively expensive and don't perform as well as conventional cars. The hybrid's cost outweighs savings from better mileage, Wall said.
"Fuel economy is not a driving factor for most consumers right now," Wall said. "What's selling is higher horsepower."
This week's event demonstrates the wide spectrum of alternative-fuel technology under development.
Several carmakers exhibited diesel-powered cars that are popular in Europe but have yet to break into the U.S. market outside commercial vehicles.
"People have this long-lasting impression of dirty, stinky diesel - black smoke and a lot of noise," said Reg Modlin, director of environmental and energy planning at DaimlerChrysler AG. "We've made great strides with diesel in the last few years. We think the market will grow over time."
Modlin said diesel engines consume 30 percent less fuel than internal-combustion engines, release fewer emissions and "feel great to drive."
DaimlerChrysler featured several prototypes of diesel-powered vehicles, including cars that run on biodiesel, which combines diesel fuel with renewable resources such as corn. Next year, the company plans to introduce diesel-powered versions of its Jeep Cherokee and Mercedes Benz.
Almost all carmakers believe hydrogen fuel cells will power the cars of tomorrow. Fuel cells generate electricity from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen and release only water as waste.
General Motors is perhaps most bullish on fuel cells. The company has invested $1 billion and spends more than a quarter of its research budget on fuel-cell development, Fosgard said.
"Our long-term vision is that the country will move toward a hydrogen economy, and fuel cells will steadily become the fuel of choice," Fosgard said.
While most car makers believe fuel cells won't hit the mainstream market for 15 to 20 years, GM targets 2010 as the year it wants to start selling fuel-cell vehicles, possibly including a version of the Hy-wire, Fosgard said. He said fuel cells are "taking the automobile out of the environmental debate."
Asked why GM opposes raising fuel-efficiency standards, Fosgard said the company doesn't have the money to develop fuel cells and more efficient gas-powered cars at the same time.
"As big as car companies are," he said, "there's a finite amount of resources."
By Terence Chea