Environmentalists dream of energy-efficient cars that run on hydrogen, with tailpipes spewing out nothing more noxious than water vapor. Judging from the popularity of Toyota’s Prius hybrid — a kind of car with both an electric motor and a gasoline engine — a fuel-cell-powered all-electric car that gets equal or better mileage from hydrogen would seem a surefire hit.

The big drawback: Where do you go to fill ‘er up with hydrogen? How about any existing gas station. Gasoline has plenty of hydrogen locked up inside it, and researchers have developed so-called reformers that can extract it. There’s a hitch, however: Reformers take 15 minutes to produce enough hydrogen to back the car out of the garage. Nobody wants a car that takes that long to start.

What’s needed is a hydrogen-age version of the automatic starter invented by Charles Kettering. It quickly replaced those antique hand-crank starters, starting with a Cadillac in 1911.

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