William Powers wasn't about to let his Blue Ribbon panelists close out Convergence 2000 by making some simple remarks about the bright future for automotive electronics.

So this year, Mr. Powers, vice president of research at Ford Motor Co., provoked his five panelists with three tough questions: What major electrical/electronic changes will come by 2010? Will we see a dual-voltage system in more than 1 million cars by 2010? Will we see more than 1 million hybrid vehicles (such as the Honda Insight) by 2010?

"With respect to the electrical/electronic changes over the next decade, I think we heard that a lot of things are coming in fuel economy, active safety, telematics - there's a whole spectrum of things," Mr. Powers says after opening remarks from each panelist.

"Will this decade be as exciting if not more exciting than 1975 to 1985, when basically computers went into every major subsystem in the vehicle? I think the answer is yes, it will be a very exciting decade," he says.

The answers to the dual-voltage and hybrid questions were a qualified "yes." If vehicles equipped with integrated starter-generators qualify as "mild hybrids," then the panelists agree that hybrid volumes will top 1 million units.

But there was some disagreement when Mr. Powers asked the panel whether 500,000 fuel-cell vehicles will be on the road by 2010.

Hans Gustavsson, senior vice president of product and process engineering at Volvo Car Corp., says fuel cells will provide the breakthrough necessary for zero-emission vehicles. "The technology that is required to achieve the goal is there," Mr. Gustavsson says. "I see the fuel cell as the drivetrain of the future."

But Donald Runkle, executive vice president of Delphi Automotive Systems, says the technology likely will be unaffordable for most consumers.

"My own feeling is that 500,000 vehicles by 2010 will not happen because of the economics of it," he says. "But I think every manufacturer will have some sort of fuel-cell demonstration fleet out there."

Likewise, Mr. Runkle anticipates a strong market for diesels. "I think diesels in particular are going to continue to show remarkable improvements, and they're already getting terrific efficiency numbers overall," Mr. Runkle says.

Franz Wressnigg, group president of Siemens Automotive, says his company is currently producing fuel cells - for submarines. "Unfortunately, the requirements for a submarine are different from an automobile. A submarine needs weight to sink, and cost is no problem for a submarine," he says, drawing a chuckle from the crowd.

Together, five or six global automakers should come close to producing 500,000 fuel-cell vehicles by 2010, says Mr. Wressnigg.

Mr. Powers also asked if battery technology would "continue limping along" or if some true innovations would come soon.

Francois Castaing, a former Chrysler Corp. executive vice president and a board member with battery maker Exide Corp., says battery producers have worked hard to reinvent automotive batteries.

"Right now I think there is some consensus among the OEMs that even though they don't like lead, it is still the most cost-effective way of storing energy," he says.

As for telematics, the hot topic at Convergence, Denso Corp. Senior Managing Director Norio Omori sees connectivity as the most significant new electrical/electronic development for automotive.

"Whether you're in your office, on the road or at home, all of your communication devices will be integrated," Mr. Omori says. "People want information everywhere."

The field of automotive electronics is evolving rapidly enough to sustain a dedicated trade show at least once a year, some industry officials apparently believe. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the Consumer Electronics Assn. (CEA) will host the Digital Car Conference & Exhibition, beginning October 2001 at Detroit's Cobo Center. It differs from Convergence slightly in that Digital Car will focus exclusively on telematics and information services - in recent years the predominant focus at Convergence. Attendance at the new show will be limited to 400. The reason? SAE and CEA want speakers to interact in real time with attendees via telematics hookups at each seat. Another 400 people will be able to "attend" via the Internet. SAE insists the Digital Car conference will not compete with Convergence. Still, some suppliers with limited trade show budgets may have to choose one show or the other. Convergence organizers say they are not considering making their conference an annual event. Since 1974, it has been held every other year. Convergence is held only in even years. To prevent conflicts, the Digital Car conference will be held in Detroit only in odd years. In even years, Digital Car will be held in Las Vegas, in conjunction with the popular Consumer Electronics Show. Attendance for this year's Convergence was expected to reach 7,000, but conference organizers say attendance topped 10,000. In 1998, 5,000 people attended Convergence in Dearborn.