A bus powered by joggers and a vehicle that could be from 'Star Wars'. Andrew Gumbel takes a look at what the world's leading car designers have in store for us

In California, the car has always been more than just a mode of transportation. It has been a vehicle to dream - of freedom, of a more perfect version of ourselves, of the future. So it seems only appropriate that the world's leading car designers - almost all of whom are concentrated in and around Los Angeles - should be invited to realise their fantasies and come up with their idiosyncratic idea of what will turn drivers on 10, 20 or 30 years from now.

The Los Angeles Auto Show is sponsoring a special design challenge featuring the innovative ideas of 10 leading car studios. The winners won't be announced until the show itself, which takes place in January. But the competing designs have just been unveiled and they are, if nothing else, a whole lot of fun.

Honda has come up with something called a Running Bus - a people carrier which derives its energy from the people themselves, jogging up and down on side-by-side treadmills. If the notion is reminiscent of slave-powered galley ships in ancient Roman times, it's not meant to be; the enslavement to exercise, in this case, is intended to be entirely voluntary. Think of it instead as the jogging path along the rim of Santa Monica Bay, only with metal sides and a roof instead of palm trees and sand. Keeps you fit, gets you places and preserves the environment - the ultimate California fantasy, if ever there was one.

Audi has come up with a model it calls the Nero. It looks like something out of Judge Dredd, all sleek black lines, with a windscreen that resembles the helmet visor of some futuristic law enforcer. The designers tout it as the ultimate nightclubbing vehicle. Audi isn't saying whether Sean "P Diddy" Combs was consulted, but you have to figure he's got to be a prime candidate to snap up the first roadworthy prototype.

Maybach, meanwhile, is promoting its California Gourmet Tourer, a three-wheeler that looks like some strange hybrid of a motorcycle and a super-sophisticated golf cart, complete with Star Wars-style top-hinged doors.

This is not intended to be a land speed record-breaker, just a handy way of trundling along from winery to winery in the Napa Valley, say, or the hills behind Santa Barbara. The Tourer drives itself, with the help of Global Positioning System technology, which means its occupants can drink themselves as silly as they like without having to worry about road safety. The seating is distinctly laid-back, and arranged around a kitchen-style table. An espresso maker, fridge and small wine cabinet are all easily within reach.

And so the list goes on. Some of the designs are aimed at the luxury end of the market, while others have a much more modest demographic in mind. GMC's vehicle, called the PAD, doubles as a small mobile living space for those who can't afford California's ever escalating housing prices. It looks a bit like an elongated Computerised Axial Tomography scan tube, only with windows at the ends and half-way along the chassis. Designer Steve Anderson doesn't like to think of it as anything so forbidding. "We wanted to create something that would look at home in Dwell magazine," he said, "a place you could bring your date back to without feeling embarrassed." It's kitted out, we are told, with satellite television and stainless steel kitchen appliances, as well as a hybrid diesel-electric engine, for maximum fuel efficiency to cut down on those petrol bills.

The design contest is heartening in more ways than one. Back out in the real world, many public policy analysts and urban planners would argue that not nearly enough has been done to envision a future in which transport needs will become ever more complex and the trad- itional dependence on oil- based fuels will become increasingly untenable.

California has made perhaps more strides than most. It is the number one market in the United States for petrol-electric hybrid cars - most of them, at this stage, made by Honda and Toyota rather than US manufacturers. The city of Los Angeles, meanwhile, is in the forefront of hydrogen fuel-cell technology; it has a hydrogen-powered car in its fleet and a dedicated hydrogen fuel station not far from City Hall.

The challenge, of course, is how to offer car manufacturers the incentive to produce an affordable version of such hydrogen vehicles - which means, in turn, thinking about building a whole new infrastructure of hydrogen fuelling stations across the country. That thinking is not so much in its infancy as in vitro.

The design challenge is nevertheless an important piece of the puzzle, and plays a crucial psychological role in broadening the debate out from just the usual bunch of over-earnest environmentalist activists and placing it firmly in the realm of wildly creative, fun-loving car enthusiasts. Last year's joint winners were a vehicle called the Dodge Superbee, a glorified motorbike with four wheels touted as the ideal weekend getaway roadster, and the Volkswagen Mobile Lounge, an environmentally rational reworking of the stretch limo providing all the comforts of the traditional Oscar night transport ship but at a fraction of the size and with fuel-cell efficiency.

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