Here's the way. Next: the will.

On a morning talk-radio show last week, one worked-up conspiracy theorist was jabbering about the salt-water-powered engine he knew had been developed.

Oil-industry lobbyists and the big automakers had bought up the patents, the caller insisted, and buried the technology.

Oceans of clean fuel out there.

A guy can dream.

What prompted the call, of course, was talk of pump prices. The Department of Energy now estimates the average price per gallon this year will be $1.46 - 25 percent higher than 1999.

Sure, we've been reminded that in adjusted dollars we've got nothing to cry about. The online magazine Slate points out that if DOE predictions of a $1.32 average for next year come true, "2001 will be one of the nine cheapest years for regular gasoline on record."

Well, thanks for the context. But right now it takes ever more trips to the ATM to keep the tank topped off. If you've long since budgeted your summer drive to Yosemite, you'd better recalculate.

On top of that, at one point not too long ago, gas probably set you back less per gallon than spring water from the supermarket.

Maybe we're spoiled. But since we've come to expect technology to help solve our problems, many of us - like that talk-show caller - have been wondering why we're not getting beyond this grimy old internal-combustion approach with a little more verve. Saving the planet - and a few bucks besides.

Actually, we are lurching forward. Electrics have become more than glorified golf carts. Gas-electric hybrids look more viable.

Ready to trade in your wheels?

Today's lead story gets inside an automotive revolution that'll be putting consumers' will to the test.

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