U.S. Sees Future in Fuel-Cell Cars

NEW YORK -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is walking away from a $1.5 billion, eight-year project to develop high-mileage, gasoline-fueled vehicles.

Instead it is throwing its support behind a plan crafted by the Energy Department and the auto industry to develop hydrogen-based fuel cells to power the cars of the future, administration and industry officials said Tuesday.

The new effort, which was to be announced in Detroit on Wednesday by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, is intended to hasten the replacement of the internal-combustion engine.

Fuel cells use stored hydrogen and oxygen from the air to create electricity, and the only emission from engines they power is water vapor.

Environmentalists and energy experts favor the research. But critics said that the new program would let Washington and Detroit focus on vague, long-term aims while avoiding the more difficult task of improving the mileage of cars and sport utility vehicles in the short term. Experts say that commercial production of cars with fuel-cell engines is 10 to 20 years away.

With hearings scheduled in the Senate next month on a Democratic alternative to President Bush's energy program, it has been unclear how either party would address fuel-economy standards.

The original program, begun in 1993, aimed to develop affordable cars that got 130 kilometers to a gallon of gasoline. In addition to about $1.5 billion in government subsidies, the Big Three automakers -- General Motors, Ford Motor and DaimlerChrysler -- together spent about $1 billion a year on related technologies for the project, known as the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles.

The carmakers all developed prototype vehicles that got at least 113 kilometers a gallon, and the project nurtured advances in aerodynamics and lighter composite materials now used in auto manufacturing.

But none of the Big Three came close to commercial production of a 130-kilometer-a-gallon car. Meanwhile, the average fuel economy of cars and trucks for sale in the United States has steadily dropped so that this year's fleet -- with its growing proportion of sport utility vehicles -- gets the worst gas mileage in 21 years, according to the government.

The new program, called Freedom Car, will not require the automakers to produce a fuel-cell powered vehicle, according to the Energy Department. Energy experts expressed concern Tuesday that without such clear targets, it too would do little to alleviate the country's growing dependence on oil.

"I think fuel cells are a useful long-term goal," said Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a research and advocacy group in Washington. "But the big problem I have is that the Bush administration proposal doesn't seem to address anything for the next 10 years. There's a lot of technology that can go into cars in 2006 or 2007."

The administration has said it would not discuss its proposed spending on the project until Bush's 2003 budget proposal is released in February, but the program it replaces is to receive $127 million in federal funds this year.

The conflict in Afghanistan has thrown a spotlight once more on America's enormous appetite for fuel, and has renewed calls for reducing American dependence on foreign oil. The United States, with only 5 percent of the world's population, consumes 25 percent of its oil, mostly in the form of gasoline.

Abraham, in remarks prepared for delivery Tuesday at the Detroit auto show, said the new project is "rooted in President Bush's call, issued last May in our National Energy Plan, to reduce American reliance on foreign oil." He added that "the eventual goal of this research are technologies that aim to solve many of the problems associated with our nation's reliance on petroleum to power our cars and trucks."

Kara Saul Rinaldi, the deputy policy director for the Alliance to Save Energy, a bipartisan research group in Washington, said: "I welcome this investment. But we're looking at long-term technology when we haven't made the first step. Raising fuel-economy standards is the first step."