The driver looks through a vast, sloped windshield that covers space usually taken up by an engine. There is no dashboard, instrument panel, steering wheel or foot pedals - just a set of adjustable footrests. All controls are electronic, so that the driver twists a pair of handles to go, moves them to turn and squeezes them to stop.
This, though, is no Hollywood moviemaker's fantasy car.
It is General Motors Corp.'s "Hy-Wire," a hydrogen-fueled, electricity-producing concept car that the company gave its debut in Sacramento, Calif., recently. The car's fuel cell produces 94 kilowatts; that's equal to 126 horsepower, about the same as found in a Ford Focus. The vehicle, which generates a loud whine when moving, can go 140 miles before refueling.
Efforts to produce environmentally friendly, hydrogen-powered vehicles were raised to new levels of visibility last month when President Bush in his State of the Union speech pledged to provide $1.2 billion to further fuel research.
In addition to GM, DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and others have spent billions developing alternative fuel vehicles.
But some experts say that of all automakers, GM is far ahead, developing cars that not only use hydrogen instead of gasoline but that replace hydraulic and mechanical parts, including brakes and steering systems, with high-tech electronics.
The company has vowed to become the first to sell a million fuel-cell vehicles and expects to start putting them on the market in 2010 - five to 10 years sooner than the timetable noted by most of its competitors.
Some believe that GM is over-reaching, but others are convinced that it may well be able to meet its goal. "GM has always been out there, pushing on technology, but has been quiet for competitive reasons," said David Cole, director of the nonprofit Altarum Institute's Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Now they are taking the wraps off."
GM is suing California to block imposition of the state's zero emissions rules. These regulations would require automakers to build thousands of electric vehicles using rechargeable storage batteries.
But the auto industry contends that conventional, electric-powered cars are too expensive and too limited in range to be profitably marketed. "Mandates don't work," said Elizabeth Lowery, GM's vice president for environmental and regulatory affairs. "We have actual products here already, and a commitment to the future vision of fuel cells."
Regulators maintain that the rules have forced the auto industry to develop advanced technologies and cleaner-running engines that otherwise would have been ignored. A March 27 hearing that could lead to revisions of the mandate has been scheduled by the California Air Resources Board.
To build support for its position, GM brought a dozen vehicles to Sacramento, including a diesel car, a fuel-cell powered van and early versions of three types of gasoline-electric hybrid cars it plans to sell in the next five years.
But the Hy-Wire, the vehicle furthest from reality, was the show's star.
The name - thought up by the son of a GM executive - represents the vehicle's principal characteristics - hydrogen fuel and drive-by-wire technology.
Gone are the fluid reservoirs and hydraulic pumps and lines that occupy so much space in a contemporary car. They are replaced by aerospace-developed systems that control steering, braking and acceleration electronically. The concept car has no rear-view mirror, but rather a trio of small, rear-facing cameras that provide a real-time image on a big screen in the center of the steering console.
Most visitors trying the Hy-Wire needed at least 10 minutes to feel comfortable with the car's controls, although a 16-year-old who grew up with a computer-game joystick in hand would probably get the hang of it in a few seconds.
Beneath the passenger cabin is an 11-inch-thick aluminum frame that holds all of the electric motors, microprocessors, mechanical parts, fuel-cell components, hydrogen tanks and other systems needed to operate the vehicle. The control wiring is carried in a single harness and permits designers to locate the operating controls virtually anywhere in the wide-open interior.
The compact, flat profile of GM's fuel cell freed auto designers from the need to make room for a hefty internal combustion engine. Cole, of the research center, went so far as to call the car's platform "the most revolutionary concept seen in this business in modern times."
Still, there are no guarantees that GM can bring the Hy-Wire to the showroom floor - especially as fast as it claims.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in developing fuel-cell vehicles is the lack of a nationwide hydrogen supply system - akin to a gasoline service-station network - to power these advanced cars and trucks. Environmentalists and automakers hope the Bush administration's commitment for hydrogen fuel research will help overcome this in the next 15 to 20 years.
GM is betting that the solutions will arrive even sooner. Meeting a 2010 schedule "is certainly possible," said Ron Cogan, publisher of the Green Car Journal, a newsletter covering the alternative fuel and vehicle markets. "But it all depends on the fuel industry getting there in time."
Most of GM's hydrogen car's electric motor drive system was developed at its advanced propulsion unit in Torrance, Calif. That group is busy on what GM fuel-cell technology director Byron McCormick calls "the real breakthrough work" of putting individual drive motors on each of the vehicle's four wheels. The idea is to create the first fuel cell-powered all-wheel-drive system.
The three tanks that hold Hy-Wire's hydrogen fuel, compressed at 5,000 pounds per square inch, were developed by an Irvine, Calif., company, Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide Inc. The company has since come up with the industry's first 10,000-psi tanks, which promise to nearly double the car's driving range to 230 miles.
John O'Dell writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.