WASHINGTON – The Bush administration launched a partnership Wednesday with domestic automakers to spur the growth of hydrogen fuel cells for the next generation of cars and trucks, hoping to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil while reducing tailpipe pollution.
The new program, called Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research, will also focus on developing a hydrogen refueling infrastructure, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said.
"The long-term results of this cooperative effort will be cars and trucks that are more efficient, cheaper to operate, pollution-free and competitive in the showroom," Abraham said at the North American International Auto Show.
The government hopes fuel cells will spur industry efforts to develop motor vehicle power systems that eventually will replace the internal combustion engine.
The new program replaces the Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle that was started by the Clinton administration to develop a vehicle that could attain 80 miles per gallon fuel efficiency.
The Energy Department and senior Bush administration policy officials have expressed little enthusiasm for that program, which was aimed at quadrupling automobile fuel economy by the middle of this decade.
"This new initiative that the Department of Energy is launching is exciting not only because it can replace gasoline as a way to power vehicles making America more energy independent, but it's pollution-free," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
Fuel cells produce electricity from a chemical reaction in which hydrogen and oxygen are combined without a flame. The only byproduct is water.
In recent years, the cost of fuel cells has dropped sharply. Hydrogen can be produced from natural gas aboard vehicles or pure hydrogen can be used, though that would require development of a supply infrastructure.
Automobile fuel economy likely is to be a major issue when the Senate takes up energy legislation next month. Democrats are calling for the government to require increased auto fuel efficiency, especially for popular sport utility vehicles.
The New Generation partnership had pushed industry development of hybrid gasoline-electric cars now just entering the market. It also had focused industry attention on finding ways to improve fuel economy without reducing car size and zip.
Using advanced aerodynamics, new engine technologies and lighter composite materials, the automakers in the program developed prototypes of vehicles capable of getting more than 70 mpg, three times better than most cars now on the road. But commercial development of large numbers of these cars in the next few years, as once envisioned, was not expected.
Although Abraham supported the program as a senator from Michigan, shortly after he became energy secretary he said the program had outlived its usefulness because the auto industry was going in a different direction.
The Bush administration proposed slashing funding for the program as part of its first budget a year ago. However, Congress kept it alive, even as some environmental groups and the watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense called the program an unnecessary subsidy for the car industry.
This new government-industry partnership "will further the president's national energy policy, which calls for increased research in hydrogen technology to diversify and enhance America's energy security," the Energy Department said.
Although several automakers — including DaimlerChrysler AG, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. — have said they expect to have fuel-cell vehicles in showrooms within the next four or five years, wide availability of such cars is probably a decade or more away.