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Every big carmaker promises that any year now, it will have a fuel-cell car on the road a vehicle that will cruise silently, spit drinkable water from its tail pipe and provide power to your house when you plug it into the garage. In the meantime, auto manufacturers are putting nanotechnology to work in other ways. Toyota was the first to experiment with strong, lightweight nanocomposite materials in the late 1980s, and U.S. automakers are starting to move nanocomposites out of the lab and into vehicles. General Motors is using advanced plastics to make step assists for 2002 GMC Safari and Chevrolet Astro vans. The new materials are stiffer, lighter and less brittle in cold temperatures than other plastics. Improvements in strength and reductions in weight lead to fuel savings. The next step is for GM to use nanocomposites in car interiors and bumpers and eventually in load-bearing structural parts, such as vehicle frames.
As nanotechnology produces more products and processes, will the technology ever catch up with Eric Drexler's theories? Says Steve Bent, a Washington patent lawyer for nanotech firms: "That will be the research agenda for the rest of the century."