A group of automakers and energy companies will develop and build hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (search) in a multimillion-dollar partnership with the government, aiming for possible mass marketing of the vehicles within 15 years, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman (search) said Wednesday.

The Energy Department announced plans for several "learning demonstration teams" involving automakers General Motors Corp., DaimlerChrysler AG, Ford Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co., as well as energy companies ChevronTexaco, BP and Shell, and Ballard Power Systems, a leading manufacturer of hydrogen fuel cells.

"If our research program is successful, it is not unreasonable to think that we could be approaching commercialization and mass marketing of these kinds of vehicles in maybe 15 years," Bodman said at the National Hydrogen Association's annual conference in Washington.

Bodman said the teams would share in at least half of the project funding, estimated at about $380 million. The companies will evaluate the fuel cells under hot and cold conditions, consider production options and ways of evaluating hydrogen infrastructure.

As part of the program:

—GM plans to build a fleet of 40 hydrogen fuel vehicles and distribute them in California and Michigan as well as in Washington, D.C., and New York City. It plans to spend $44 million in total for their manufacture, transportation and upkeep and the building of hydrogen refueling stations in California and the East Coast corridor from New York City to Washington, D.C.

—DaimlerChrysler, which now has the largest fleet of fuel cell vehicles of any automaker, and three energy partners will also invest $44 million to place such vehicles with consumers who will provide feedback on their performance.

—Other companies will search for the best way to produce hydrogen and test the fuel cells and how the technology would fare in hot, humid climates.

The fuel cells run on the energy produced when hydrogen and oxygen are mixed, rather than using gasoline. The only byproduct of a fuel cell is water. The technology has been used in experimental vehicles and as a power supply for some buildings.

President Bush since 2003 has pushed a 5-year, $1.7 billion research program to develop hydrogen as America's next energy source. He has predicted Americans will drive cars operated by hydrogen-powered fuel cells in less than two decades.

The program has involved workshops with state and local officials on the benefits of hydrogen power and conducted demonstration projects nationwide, Energy Department officials said.

Most major automakers are developing hydrogen fuel cells but say the cost of the vehicles and a lack of fueling stations make them unmarketable for now.

In separate efforts, Ford has announced plans to deliver eight hydrogen-run shuttle buses to Florida and to distribute Ford Focus fuel cell vehicles in the United States, Canada and Germany.

DaimlerChrysler, meanwhile, is developing a range of fuel cell vehicles, including a four-door passenger car called the Mercedes F-Cell, the Dodge Fuel Cell Sprinter van and a fleet of fuel cell-powered Mercedes Citaro buses.

Among Japanese automakers, Mazda is road-testing a hydrogen-fueled, rotary-engine version of its RX-8 sports car that allows the driver to select hydrogen or gasoline with the flick of a switch. Toyota is developing a fuel cell hybrid vehicle based on the Toyota Highlander, a mid-size sport utility vehicle.