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Gas prices lower; hybrid research rises

There's a lot of new automotive technology on the drawing boards, but buyers may have to wait a few more years before some of it becomes available. For consumers who may be wondering whether to buy what's out there now or wait for something truly revolutionary, here's a brief rundown of what's coming soon and what's not.

Despite the recent retreat of gasoline prices, manufacturers continue to concentrate on electric hybrids and other alternatives to a conventional gasoline engines.

• General Motors continues to tout its Volt concept car, which is designed to run on a plug-in electric motor as well as an internal combustion engine capable of running on a wide variety of fuels. What's holding that car up is a significant advancement in lithium-ion batteries, which are necessary because they can be more easily recharged, deliver more power and take up less space than the nickel metal hydride batteries used in today's hybrids. It's doubtful that any variation of the Volt will appear before 2010, if then, GM insiders say.

• Toyota, which has said it wants to have gas-electric hybrids throughout its lineup by 2010, also is working on hybrids with lithium-ion batteries, but says that in current form the heat generated by such batteries continues to be a concern. Recent reports of cell phone and computer fires from rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that overheated show such a concern is understandable. Battery technology companies say they are confident they can overcome such issues -- but aren't sure when. And even though there are small companies offering plug-in conversions to its Prius -- which can greatly extend fuel mileage -- Toyota is leery of offering plug-in hybrids because of safety and liability concerns until a reliable lithium-ion battery is developed.

• Chrysler is due to start tests of Sprinter hybrid plug-in vans with lithium-ion batteries, and Ford is testing plug-in Escape hybrids, but there's no word on when showrooms may see such vehicles.

• More immediately available from Honda will be a clean-burning diesel that is expected to be offered in the Accord by 2009, and there will be greater availability of hybrids in Honda's smaller vehicles.

Widespread use of more exotic means of propulsion, such as hydrogen fuel cells, is at least a decade away -- hindered by both technology and the lack of roadside refueling infrastructure.

Honda expects to have limited availability next year of its FCX hydrogen fuel cell concept sedan. It makes hydrogen to run its electric fuel cell by filling up from a pump attached to your home's natural gas supply. There's no word on price or exact availability, but it's likely that a few buyers in California will be the first to have a crack at the four-door FCX.

One new technology that has nothing to do with saving fuel or the environment, but may well amaze buyers nonetheless, comes from Nissan's upscale Infiniti division.

The paint on the new 2008 Infiniti EX35 small crossover will be able to literally erase small scratches on its own.

Called fluid finish technology, the EX35 carries a clear coat that contains a fluid resin that can flow back into shape and erase minor scratches. The process can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to work, and Nissan says the scratch erasing ability of the EX35's skin will work for the first three years of the vehicle's life.

Expect prices on the EX35 to start around $39,000, but think of what you'll save on touch-up paint!

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