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How I almost wrecked a $3.5 million car

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Driving in the future reminds me a lot of driving in the past.

You'd think General Motors' Hy-wire - a fuel-cell concept car - would rewrite the book on driving, with itsfuturistic fuel and its video-game controls. But I haven't driven something this different - and difficult - since the time I sat behind the wheel of a well-preserved 1908 Ford Model T.

For starters, there is no traditional steering wheel in this $3.5 million marvel of technology - a feature that, it turns out, will make this test drive unlike any other.

What it does have, though, is a hydrogen-fuel system that emits only water and heat, an environmental benefit that many hope will make this baby the car of the future.

Of course, even optimists concede you won't see hydrogen-powered cars on the streets before 2010. Pessimists say it may be never.

For the moment, we have to content ourselves with concept cars. So when GM brought its Hy-wire to the Boston area last month, who could resist the chance to take the nonwheel?

The doors on Hy-wire's big body swing forward in front and backward in the back. Sidle into the cockpit, and the foam-framed nylon mesh seat feels hard and soft in all the wrong places. You do get to choose your seat, however.

The driver can sit on either the left or right side, behind a handle that looks like an airplane control yoke and slides right or left on a track. Even stranger, the chassis, called the "skateboard," holds so much mechanical gear (like an old-fashioned car) there's no room for foot wells. Your legs stick straight out with your feet on an adjustable footrest.

On this sunny spring day, GM has brought the Hy-wire to a Boston-area parking lot to let reporters test-drive it. Since it cost $3.5 million to build - and controlling the car is, shall we say, an adventure - the company wasn't about to let us drive it on our own. So beside me sits GM engineer Juergen Reinheimer, holding a Game Boy-like screen with four buttons as override controls.

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