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Eco-friendly cars on display

The Associated Press

SONOMA, Calif. ' The world's major automakers gathered in California this week to show off more than 100 vehicles powered by electric motors, hybrid engines, hydrogen fuel cells and other eco-friendly technologies aimed at reducing pollution and boosting fuel economy.

Grabbing much attention was a General Motors Corp. car called Hy-wire, which puts fuel cell technology in a futuristic body, and lacks foot pedals, steering wheel or even an engine.

Automakers say fuel cells could reach the market within a decade and eventually eliminate today's internal combustion engine as a source of air pollution.

The industry is moving toward cleaner, lower emission vehicles, said Ron Musgnug, project leader for the Michelin-sponsored media event, known as Challenge Bibendum. Many alternatives for the consumer will be available as the industry continues its progress.

— 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. While 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 of dollars 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, and environmentalists are impatient for more consumer choices.

There will be a market for this technology, but it's still in its infancy stages, assures Mike Wall, an automobile analyst at CSM Worldwide in Farmington Hills, Mich.

Toyota and Honda 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. 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 great drive.

DaimlerChrysler featured several prototypes of diesel-powered vehicles, including cars that run on bio-diesel, 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 only release water as waste.

General Motors is perhaps most bullish on fuel cells. The Detroit-based company has invested &

36;1 billion and spends more than a quarter of its annual research budget on fuel cell development, said Scott Fosgard, General Motors' communications director.

for advanced technology vehicles.

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, General Motors wants to start selling fuel cell vehicles by 2010, Fosgard said. He said fuel cells are taking the automobile out of the environmental debate.

Asked why General Motors 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, there's a finite amount of resources, Fosgard said. We don't have the resources to do both.