IT'S hard to imagine the future of cars being tied up with electricity. Think electric car and you immediately picture Noddy's little two-seater, Sir Clive Sinclair's abortive C5 three-wheeler or a milk float.

Yet major car manufacturers all over the world are spending millions of pounds, dollars and yen developing the electric motor car.

The latest fuel crisis and the mercurial nature of oil prices is more than enough to persuade them there has to be a future beyond petroleum. Experts also believe there may only be 100 years' worth of crude left in the ground anyway.

Current prices at the pump are certainly enough to turn motorists on to LPG fuel - it's about a third of the cost. But when you consider what LPG stands for - liquid petroleum gas - it doesn't take the argument much further as it's still a non-reusable fuel.

It's also hard to see a future in tractors powered by chicken dung or cars which run on sugarbeet, beetroot or oilseed rape - the acreage needed to meet demand would cover most of the world's land above sea-level.

Wind power would leave motorists at the mercy of the elements and praying for a storm, while solar power would be fine if you lived in the desert but not much good in the North-East and North Yorkshire where the skies are often filled with cloud.

"It wouldn't be very practical either - not everyone wants to drive a car which is 25ft long and very fragile," says Lawrence Pearce, of Honda, which developed such a machine. It only had one seat and if you had a minor shunt, bang went your fuel source.

"The cost of solar cells is also prohibitive but it has been a useful test-bed for things, such as using solar cells to power the radio or lights, which would achieve a fuel saving."

Honda does sell the Insight, a hybrid car which uses an electric motor alongside a three cylinder petrol engine. It runs on a system called Integrated Motor Assist (IMA).

Unlike a traditional electric vehicle, it doesn't need an outside source of electric power. Instead, the motor draws power from the batteries when you accelerate (Motor Assist) and then a generator 'recycles' the power by recharging the battery when you decelerate.

Motor Assist stops when you reach cruising speed and the three-cylinder VTEC engine powers the car. The performance is equivalent to that of a 1.5 litre petrol engine (even though it's 1,000cc) with 0-62mph coming in at 12 seconds and a top speed of 112mph.

But the real success of Insight is its efficiency. It's estimated that the system is three times more efficient than a conventional engine. The 83 miles per gallon it achieves on a combination of roads means it boasts the world's lowest fuel consumption for a mass-produced petrol-engined car. Driving carefully can achieve the magic 100mpg figure.

More fuel is saved by a system that cuts the engine as the car comes to a stop and is put into neutral, for instance at traffic lights. The engine restarts when the clutch is dipped and first gear is engaged.

The car is light, aerodynamic and efficient. The only drawback is that it is a two-seater.

What is learned on the Insight today will be incorporated into future Hondas, possibly the latest Civic due to be launched soon. Hybrids will fill in for a few years until the true replacement for the internal combustion engine comes along - the hydrogen cell.

The problem with conventional battery-powered electric cars is three fold. The batteries are big, heavy and in constant need of charging (there's also the issue of how you charge them - doing it from the mains would place a heavy burden on coal-fire power stations so would be no better for the environment). Secondly, they have a limited range before they need charging and, lastly, they have limited performance.

The fuel cell avoids these problems and is being explored by most manufacturers with renewed vigour.

Mention of hydrogen, of course, sparks memories of the ill-fated Hindenburg airship which burst into flames coming into land in New Jersey in America. But the reality is that the gas is no more dangerous than petroleum and the benefits to man are enormous.

A hydrogen cell takes oxygen from the atmosphere and mixes it with hydrogen which causes a chemical reaction, the by-product of which is electricity.

This then powers a near-silent motor which is as powerful as an internal combustion engine, but which emits pure water vapour as exhaust 'fumes'.

The only down side is deciding how to store the gas in the car, the massive task of equipping the nation's thousands of petrol stations with the new fuel and the means to get it safely on board the vehicle.

A halfway house would be to run the power cells on methanol which stations could easily handle. This chemical releases hydrogen with only a third of the emissions of petrol.

"We have cracked all the technology problems of producing such an engine," says spokesman for Mercedes, Doug Wallace. "We have got one running at Munich Airport collecting real life data. By 2002 we will have the first commercial vehicles and buses running on hydrogen."

At first, and until economies of scale kick in, the fuel cell cars will cost slightly more than petrol and diesel equivalents.

Otherwise vehicles will share the same 300-400 mile range, produce the same power and have similar top speeds. They will be a lot quieter, because there will only be a slight hum from the electric motor, and much cleaner.

"Eventually there will be the full range of fuel cell cars, from small hatchbacks to family saloons, big off-roaders and people carriers to sports cars, all powered by the natural elements of oxygen and hydrogen.

"We have been working on a prototype for several years, the NECAR (New Electric Car)," Mr Wallace says. "The technology used to be cumbersome, in fact it filled the back of a van.

"Now we have it in an A Class. Technology has shrunk so much that the fuel cells fit in the boot between the floorpans. Fuel cell technology has been around for years in spacecraft. We have said we will have it in a car by 2004."

The technology is there to confine petrol to the annals of history and produce a vehicle which no longer depletes the Earth's natural resources and fills the atmosphere with pollutants.

Fuel cell cars will be on our roads very soon. But don't expect running costs to be any cheaper; technology has little effect on Government fuel tax.