Soaring gasoline prices are no big deal. The real push for greener cars is from the lawmakers--especially in California, where the Zero Emissions Mandate requires that by 2003, 10 percent of all cars sold will be pollution-free. To meet that standard the auto industry is betting on a new power source: hydrogen fuel cells. In theory, you can get limitless hydrogen from seawater using solar power. And when you burn it, you get energy and plain water--nothing else. In recent years carmakers and oil companies have spent billions of dollars learning to make the cells cheaper and more efficient.
Now the first cell-powered prototype cars are finally appearing. The pacesetter for the Sydney Games marathon was Opel's HydroGen 1 prototype. BMW has built a test fleet of 15 hydrogen-powered 7-Series vehicles. General Motors Chairman Harry Pearce calls the fuel cell Precept, unveiled in January, his "baby." Mercedes-Benz says it will start producing a hydrogen-fueled car in 2004. By January Ford expects to give California regulators a test model of its five-passenger P2000, with a 280-volt electric motor that can power the car from zero to 60 in 10 seconds.
The technology is still far from your driveway. There's only one public hydrogen filling station in the world, in a corner of Munich's airport. The stuff will cost about $32 a gallon until production ramps up. Safety is a concern--remember the Hindenburg? Still, industry experts say half the new cars in the world might run on hydrogen by 2020. "Everyone is buying a ticket to the lottery," says Paul Everitt, chief economist at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. "Whoever wins will win big time." It's a clean job--and somebody's got to do it.