Although we've stated we're going to tell you about the automotive new-world order, in one sense, there isn't much to tell.

At least from the powertrain standpoint.

You see, even as we prepare to meet a new millennium, technical progress acknowledges no such arbitrary niceties. The simple fact is thatdemonstrative powertrain technology "leaps" aren't going to happen just because we're ready to run into a new century. Even measured by our year 2020 time limit, powertrain technology likely isn't going to be vastly different from what we've got today.

Of course that means the good 'ol internal combustion engine (ICE). Sure, you might hear plenty of rosy talk about fuel cell power, but we wouldn't recommend cashing in the retirement fund to invest in the fuel cell industry.

Why? Automakers have enormous capital investment in ICE. Numerous - and considerable - technical challenges remain before fuel cells approach anything near volume application. And don't forget infrastructure - unless fuel cell vehicles with onboard gasoline or methanol reformation can quickly cut exponential amounts of cost (among other things) from their componentry, there currently are just two places in the world where a hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle can be refueled. There's a lot of real estate - and water - between fuel stops in Michigan and Germany.

So ICE it is, at least in the opinion of powertrain engineers disposed to speak on the subject. It's not so bad; in 2020 the ICE might have a low-tech reputation, but it will be highly advanced, highly efficient and hardly outmoded.

Figure it this way: Although fuel cell interests will have us believe that fuel cells are the path to automotive nirvana, the existing understanding is that fuel cell power will present an overall efficiency of perhaps 40%. That is, 40% of the fuel's potential energy will be transmitted as power to propel the vehicle.

The ICE isn't that far behind. Today's best direct-injection (DI) gasoline engines convert about 25% of gasoline to turn the wheels (21% gasoline-engine energy efficiency is about average, says one General Motors Corp. engineer who ought to know) - most of the rest is lost to friction and waste heat.

Better yet are today's amazing DI diesels, now stepping up with a frugal 35% energy efficiency. That's still 5% shy of what the best fuel cells are projected to deliver, but remember that the DI diesel's 35% energy efficiency comes in vehicles competitively priced in today's market, compared to the practically incalculable price you'd have to pay right now for the fuel cell's extra 5% of efficiency.

The key is the "right now" factor. We're talking the future, right? Once the fuel cell's technical problems are surmounted, most fuel cell developers' chatter is centered on the need for drastic cost reduction.

In that same time, ICE technology itself will advance, largely unfettered by the need to achieve drastic cost reductions. So while fuel cells work to achieve fiscal parity with ICEs, their efficiency presumably isn't going to get much better. Meanwhile, money spent on ICE advances can be allotted almost exclusively to cutting the already close efficiency gap between ICEs and fuel cells.

How much better can the ICE get? That depends, of course, on who's talking. At a recent powertrain development conference, discussion rallies around moving DI gasoline engines to 28% to 30% efficiency, diesels to 40% - or better. Some engineers counter by saying that ICE advances are "maxed out," and that meaningful improvement will come only with substantial cost.

It appears the reality may lie in the middle. Direct fuel injection provided a solid boost to ICE efficiency, and it won't be long before most gasoline engines follow the diesel - no new diesel engine will be developed without DI, yet it's being done within today's highly charged industry cost structures. The bottom line is that DI componentry costs have been driven down to acceptable levels by increasing volume.

In the near- and mid-term future, then, DI will be assumed for all ICEs - both diesel and gasoline.

And just for fun, let's say that some type of variable valve timing will be a standard item. There's not much efficiency gain from "standard" variable valve timing, but there are emissions and power-production benefits.

Take variable valve timing to another level though: manipulation of the ICE's basic Otto cycle to deliver efficiency gains. We've already seen it to some degree with Mazda Motor Corp.'s Miller-cycle engine (a full expansion cycle with a truncated, energy-saving compression cycle, achieved, in essence, with variable valve timing) and with Toyota Motor Corp.'s Atkinson cycle.

Next will come starter/alternators that provide the benefit of instant starting (some fuel savings there) and perhaps the ability to "hybridize" the ICE by recovering braking energy and storing it in a small battery pack. That battery power is then used to augment the ICE during times of heavy load. Here, too, there's already an example on the road: Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Insight, and soon Toyota's Prius.

These hybridized ICEs also can use the high power developed in their starter/alternator/generators to provide increased electrical power that will run ancillaries formerly leeching off the ICE. Power steering, power brakes, air conditioning, for example. More efficiency gain.

With the increased onboard electrical production available from hybridized ICEs, lightweight valves can be electrically driven, removing from the ICE the frictional burden of turning camshafts and their associated energy sucking hardware. Still more potential efficiency.

So where are we? Twenty years from now, the ideal ICE will be: A turbocharged DI diesel, hybridized with a starter/alternator/generator driving electronically actuated valves in a Miller cycle. Almost all ancillaries will be electrically driven. The starter/alternator will provide for engine shut-down (and subsequent instant startup) in bumper-to-bumper traffic or at stop lights. Energy normally lost in slowing down and braking will be recovered and stored, to later be used by the ICE.

Friction reduction will be optimized with lightweight pistons, advanced cylinder bore coatings and, of course, the elimination of camshafts rubbing against valve stems.

Nothing exotic, no technology that doesn't exist - save, perhaps, electromechanical valve actuation - right now and at a comparatively cheap price. Total energy efficiency: perhaps 40%. One radical engineer who won't be named for fear of being branded a heretic suggests a "fully optimized diesel can make 45% efficiency, with great torque as a bonus."

Nobody wants to dump on fuel cells. Some of the industry's best minds are splurging their grey matter on them, perhaps as the ultimate answer.

But let's not forget we're only talking about 20 years hence. Look how long it's taken the ICE to get where it is, yet notice how much it still resembles the ICE of Daimler's and Otto's time - and how much there is yet to improve.

Twenty years, in powertrain terms, is a pittance.