It has no engine, no steering column and no brake pedal. It requires no gasoline, emits no pollution (just a little water vapor) and yet handles like a high-performance Porsche. It might sound like an environmentalist's fantasy, but there it was on display at the Paris Auto Show last September: the Hy-wire, a politically correct, fully functional prototype that General Motors claims could be road ready by 2010. Other car manufacturers--including Toyota, Honda and Ford--are working on post-fossil-fuel automobiles, but only GM has rethought the car from the ground up, adopting an impressive array of advanced technologies invented both in Detroit and very far from it. Instead of an internal-combustion engine, for example, the Hy-wire is powered by fuel cells like those used in the orbiting space station. Power is generated by an electrochemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen that yields as its by-product only heat and H2O. No smelly exhaust, no smog, no greenhouse gases.
Gone too are the cables and mechanical links that have held together cars since the dawn of the automobile age a century ago. Instead, the steering and braking are fully electronic, using techniques pioneered in fly-by-wire aircraft cockpits. In place of the steering column is a small color screen and two handgrips. To accelerate, you twist the grips. To apply the brakes, you squeeze them. To turn left or right, you move the grips up or down.
Instead of a rearview mirror, there's a camera that projects an image of the road you have traveled, along with such driving data as speed and hydrogen-fuel levels. Because the car is fully programmable, drivers can set their performance preferences. (Brakes: soft or hard? Engine: sporty or fuel conserving?)
Eliminating all the mechanical controls frees up the space where an engine would normally reside; in the Hy-wire prototype you can see straight through the front of the car. Without a steering column, designers can place the controls anywhere in the car for maximum comfort and safety--even in the backseat.
The heart of the Hy-wire, however, is the aluminum, skateboard-like chassis that runs the length of the vehicle. Nestled within it are the fuel cells, an electric motor, tanks of compressed hydrogen and all the electronics. Because the fiber-glass body is basically a shell, different models can be swapped like cell-phone covers. So you could in theory drive a sports car on the weekends and change it into a minivan to haul the kids to school.
Of course, the Hy-wire is just a prototype, and getting the first production units on the road by 2010 would require the notoriously sluggish auto industry to shift gears a lot faster than usual. For one thing, the roadside infrastructure that fuels and services today's gas guzzlers would have to be redesigned to dispense hydrogen and reprogram faulty control systems. But if the result were a fleet of safe, fuel-efficient, nonpolluting cars and trucks that reduced or eliminated the world's dependence on fossil fuel, it would be worth the effort. --By Anita Hamilton