As might be expected, gather all the engineers who thought up all these different concepts into one room, then toss in the marketers and managers who must turn their concepts into cash, and the debates can become intense. The real action was soon taking place upstairs in the meeting rooms. Guys in tweed jackets would point their fingers, politely, at the guys in suits. Guys in suits would point at the guys in jeans. "The consumer wants power," some said. "No," came the response, "the consumer wants convenience." Or low cost. Or freedom. Men hate to plug in cars at night, the fuel cell proponents said. Women, the backers of bigger batteries claimed, hate to pump fuel at gas stations.

Still, whatever the motor-fuel combination that was being plugged, it was clear that the electric motor has arrived for good. It may not do away with gasoline, but it does greatly simplify the drive train.

"The key to all of these vehicles is electric drive," says Robert C. Stempel, the former chairman and CEO of General Motors who is now chairman of Energy Conversion Devices, one of the leading developers and manufacturers of fuel cells and nickel metal hydride batteries for alternative vehicles. We can "see these all as competing technologies, or we can see them all as complementary" ways to power the electric motors, he adds.

Hiss and Miss
On the final day of the meeting, electric buses ferried attendees to an industrial park north of Sacramento for a chance to test drive some of the cars. Ferdinand Panik, the head of DaimlerChrysler's fuel cell program, said the "ride and drive" event reminded him of a Formula One race. Standing in the chilly, stark dawn, a more accurate description seemed to be open-entry road rally.