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Researchers at General Motors have shown one of the most innovative approaches to fuel-cell cars with the Hy-wire prototype, unveiled this year. Gone are the engine, transmission and gas tank found in today's internal-combustion cars. In their place is a skateboard-like platform--just 6 in. thick--that houses the fuel cells, the hydrogen tank and all the electronics that are needed to power the car. Electric motors placed inside each wheel get the car rolling. Because the steering controls are all electronic--a concept known as "drive by wire"--gone, too, is the mechanical steering column. Instead, drivers rotate a small handgrip to accelerate and squeeze it to brake. "The basic premise is providing consumers with a design they can get passionate about, rather than asking them to compromise their lifestyles," says Christopher Borroni-Bird, director of "design and technology fusion" at GM.
Support for fuel-cell cars is accelerating faster than a Corvette. Every U.S. automaker has demonstrated a prototype version, and full-scale production models are expected to come out within the next 10 years as costs drop. Before the big roll-out, Toyota and Honda plan to bring small test fleets to market in the U.S. sometime next year, and Ford says it will follow in 2004. To speed the debut of the fuel cells, President Bush is proposing tax breaks and other industry incentives.
A more immediate approach to developing eco-friendly cars involves reducing their all-around energy requirements in the first place. The steel that most cars are made of could be replaced by carbon-fiber polymers, which are lighter and more aerodynamic, as well as easy to make. The body panels on the diminutive Smart car from DaimlerChrysler are made of a recyclable thermoplastic alloy called Xenoy that is several times lighter than steel and helps the car get up to 65 m.p.g. Some 116,000 Smarts were sold last year in Europe and Japan, a 16% increase over 2000. But Americans' appetite for fast, powerful cars and roomy sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) makes it unlikely that they will ever settle for a two-seater the size of a golf cart that takes 17 sec. to go from zero to 60 m.p.h. (about twice as long as the typical car sold in the U.S.). Hence Detroit's preoccupation with fuel cells, which could ultimately clean up even the most monstrous SUV.
Making personal transport less damaging to the planet means looking beyond cars as well. "If you could wave a magic wand and make every car fuel efficient, it wouldn't solve all our problems," says Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA Research in Manchester, N.H. "It is still very energy intensive to move a 2,000- or 3,000-pound machine." His solution: the Segway, the recently unveiled high-end scooter that goes up to 13 m.p.h., is powered by an electric motor and runs on just a nickel's worth of electricity a day. The batteries today are standard nickel- metal hydride and nickel-cadmium, but the scooters could easily be switched over to a hydrogen-based power source. One of the $8,000 machine's coolest features is its steering and braking system, which uses a series of gyroscopes to sense and respond to your body's movements: lean forward, and the Segway accelerates. Lean backward, and it stops.