It may be a testament to the whirlwind pace of recent alternative automotive powertrain development that when the Partnership for New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) "narrowed" its list of technologies for future development, the beam was focused more like a searchlight than a laser.

No one really knows where the next breakthrough might come or what technology might suddenly vault past others. While the near-term seems to suggest a direct-injection diesel engine/electric motor hybrid system is the best bet, fuel cells have been coming on strong lately.

And electric vehicles (EVs) continue to at least show a blip on the radar screen of next-generation technology, even though battery technology remains woefully expensive and driving range is inadequate.

In fact, with gasoline selling for less than $1 a gallon and the U.S. economy roaring along, few consumers care about these technological test beds. Even the target vehicle seems out of date now, with PNGV developers trying to duplicate a mid-size sedan when buyers want king-sized sport/utility vehicles.

So why are automakers spending tens of millions on something virtually no one wants?

Look to the coasts, and the Washington, DC, offices of federal regulators.

California is mandating a whole string of air quality requirements. Also, federal laws require government and utility fleets to adopt a variety of new technologies and alternative fuels.

In fact, WAW's 20th annual engineering survey finds that while 75.2% of the respondents are suspect of the science behind issues like global warming, more than 80% expect the issue to cost them more in energy and manufacturing costs.

Even if the Kyoto global warming agreement is never ratified, automakers are expecting it to set the regulatory tone.

And there are other warning signs.

In early February Big Three automakers agreed to make all U.S. vehicles meet tough California-like emissions specifications. That means adding bigger catalytic converters and other pollution-control equipment, plus making adjustments to fuel-management systems for all cars not currently destined for that state. The moves are estimated to cost about $100 per car, but should allow automakers to avoid some tougher standards proposed by individual states.

The Northeast will be the first region outside California to get the cleaner cars and trucks in the '99 model year. By the 2001 model year, they should be available throughout the U.S.

While some states still want tougher emissions rules, the Environmental Protection Agency is pleased with the Big Three's decision because it means significant emissions reductions for the whole country much earlier than possible under current rules. The EPA can't impose new regulations until 2004.

EPA Administrator Carol Browner praised U.S. automakers for taking "a common sense, cost-effective step in cleaning the nation's air and protecting the public health."

Meantime, automakers take turns bragging about their latest theoretical breakthrough and roll out prototypes that suggest what their table-top systems might look like if and when they become small and inexpensive enough to fit under the hood.

While developers protest that the next-generation technology is not purely driven by regulatory pressures, it's often a weak argument. No one is suggesting that we will run out of oil any time soon, and few of the alternative fuels offer anywhere near the energy efficiency of gasoline.

It's true that Mercedes-Benz AG, Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Corp. and the Big Three all have competing electric, fuel cell and hybrid programs. But it's hard to imagine that anyone would want to buy a Prius, the new Toyota hybrid, if they had to pay the extra $20,000 that Toyota absorbs to bring the car to market.

Nor is it likely GM would have rolled out even a fraction of the relatively few EV models it has leased in California and Arizona without tax breaks, grants and heavy automaker subsidies for the customer.

Estimates for some of the new lithium-ion EV battery pack systems run into six figures for one vehicle powertrain, while customers expect to pay a fraction of that price in the showroom.

All this allows automakers to demonstrate how they are making an effort to meet the environmental and fuel economy requirements of the new millenium. Without such efforts, they all know the government could pull Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) out of its current funding limbo, dust it off, and have automakers scrambling to find a way to make their profitable big trucks get gas mileage like a Chevy Metro.

On the following 16 pages, WAW takes a detailed look at where powertrain technology is heading, from current internal combustion engines to fuel-cell powered electric vehicles.