Given the secrecy of most automotive companies, it is perhaps not surprising that direct answers to these questions are rare. But there is still plenty of good news coming from the automakers' research divisions. America's roads these days are literally humming with dozens of experimental cars powered by alternatives to the internal combustion engine, fueled by a variety of alternative energy sources. Indeed, many auto industry leaders now say the end of the century-long reign of the four-stroke engine is at last in sight, even for SUVs, buses, and heavy trucks.
This is more than a competition of ideas. For the companies, the stakes of which new technologies win out will be huge. One reason, as most everyone in the business of developing new cars keeps reminding each other, is the health of the environment. But that's a rather abstract issue. More imperative is that over the next few years many of the automobile options now seeking to merge into the fast lane of production will find themselves, like the EV1, relegated to the garages of enthusiasts and to the floors of museums.
In many senses, the auto industry is returning to its earliest years a century ago, when the architecture of the car seemed ready to go in almost any direction. Hundreds of companies experimented with dozens of vehicle types, fueled by myriad fuels and fuel mixtures. By 1914, roughly a third of the cars in the United States ran off electric batteries. Many others, including the famous Stanley Steamer, were powered by burning coal, kerosene, or even wood. But the greater power, efficiency, and convenience of the early internal combustion engines - combined with the new mass production techniques then being refined by Henry Ford - condemned other models to the scrap heap.