Sanoma, Calif. 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 skateboardlike 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.
"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 a recent show where 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 auto makers 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.