‘So I say hybrids will save less fuel than expected, tow less and cost more. Some will be built, but I say fewer than predicted today. People won't buy them if they don't make sense, and they don't make sense.’

“I've spent my life taking noise and vibration out of cars,” says Robert Stempel, trying to explain his liking of electric cars. “From the customer standpoint, for real smoothness, it's hard to beat an electric drive. I have a passion for them,” he admits.

Bob Stempel was a pretty good engineer at General Motors Corp., climbing to chief executive officer, the first “car guy” to head GM in decades. He was pushed out after just two years in a boardroom coup in late 1992. But his problems like the Persian Gulf War, were largely inherited or ill fortune. And don't forget that the financial side of GM didn't approve of car men at the top.

But that's another story.

Mr. Stempel now is chairman of Energy Conversion Devices, a research company heavily involved in exotic materials, advanced batteries and fuel cells, the heart of alternate power systems for cars.

He really believes change is coming.

“Within 10 years you'll begin to see some serious numbers,” he says, meaning cars with alternative engines, “250,000 to 300,000, that's when it begins to get serious.” There even are government forcasts predicting 20% alternative engines in 20 years.

Maybe, but when it comes to alternative engines, I've always been a Doubting Thomas.

My first problem: Why do we need them?

The pollution problem is close to over with more improvements coming. It just doesn't seem a problem anymore.

Running out of oil is not a near-term danger, either.

It is Earth warming. Carbon dioxide is considered an Earth warming villain and car engines produce it. Burning less fuel alternative engines will reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Whether you accept the Earth warming theory or not, that's today's hot button.

Let's examine the alternatives:

Electric cars still aren't going anywhere now. Mr. Stempel says his company's new battery pack gave the GM Impact electric car a 160-mile (256-km) range (at a steady 60 mph/96 km/h). But the battery pack cost $15,600. With volume production the cost would come way down, but there's no volume now. And the Impact car is mothballed.

The big news today is the hybrid vehicle with both a gasoline engine and an electric motor, adding $1,000 to $3,000 to cost. At least that's the story. They work. I've driven hundreds of miles in small Toyota and Honda hybrids getting 50 mpg (4.7L/100 km). Detroit wants to go hybrid, but not with 50-mpg minis. Our auto-makers want hybrid systems in heavier sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) that get 13 to 16 mpg (18.1 to 14.7L/100 km). They talk of 20% to 60% fuel economy increases, depending on the hybrid system.

A 20% gain on 15 mpg is only 3 mpg. They must figure that's worthwhile, because at 13 mpg to 16 mpg the vehicles are hostage to gasoline prices and the government one day may get tougher on truck mileage. The idea is that a 6-cyl. could be used instead of an eight, or a smaller eight instead of a bigger eight. That would save fuel. The engine would go off during short stops, saving fuel, or the vehicle might start out on battery power. All to save fuel.

I've got a list of 30 vehicles said to be offering a hybrid variation over the next few years. A hybrid Dodge Durango and Ford Escape have been officially announced.

But nothing ever works as well as planned. Sure, I got 50 mpg from a Toyota Prius but I drove in summer. Car&Driver magazine got 35 mpg (6.7L/100 km) testing in winter because cold weather required more use of the gasoline engine. That's some drop the greenies didn't tell me about. Towing capacity also falls with hybrids, and towing boats or horse trailers are reasons people buy big trucks. And in my experience, things always cost more than projected. So $1,000 to $3,000 will go up before it goes down.

So I say hybrids will save less fuel than expected, tow less and cost more. Some will be built, but I say fewer than predicted today. People won't buy them if they don't make sense, and they don't make sense.

Bob Stempel believes the hybrids are just a step in the direction to hydrogen power. Hydrogen is “our most common element, and when it replaces fossil fuels, it probably will change our economy,” he says. He says “when,” not “if.”

Cars actually could run on hydrogen, just as they run on gasoline, using today's internal combustion engines. No pollution: The emission is water.

But what's hot is the hydrogen fuel cell. There are test cars running around now with fuel cell “engines” and more are coming.

With the fuel cell, hydrogen stored in the vehicle is combined with oxygen from the air in the cell. The process also creates electricity, which runs the car.

Here Bob and I part company. He doesn't say all internal combustion engines will be replaced, just that these alternatives will be big in a couple decades.

I say maybe, but in 100 years.

But I won't bet on it.

After all, Doubting Thomas was wrong.

What Fools These Mortals Be

Brand marketing theory and P&G package goods people have been disasters. GM constantly loses market share. Ford apes GM and falls, too.

Now Chrysler joins the trend. Advertise in McDonald's or with a Sam Goody sweepstakes, says Chrysler's new marketing boss. Sure, teenagers buying 99-cent double cheeseburgers will run out and buy $30,000 Sebring ragtops. One thing's sure: It costs a fortune and won't sell a single car. Maybe Chrysler can advertise on the backs of those peanut packs Northwest Airlines gives instead of lunch. I think Buick gave up the peanut pack franchise.

Can Chrysler survive such marketing? Not likely.

What fools these mortals be!

Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.