- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2002

DETROIT (AP) The Bush administration yesterday announced a pact with the major U.S. automakers to accelerate the development of nonpolluting vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
The program, called Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research, also will 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," Mr. Abraham said during the announcement at Cobo Hall, site of the North American International Auto Show.
Freedom CAR replaces the Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle (PNGV) program started by the Clinton administration to develop a vehicle that could attain 80 mpg fuel efficiency.
"PNGV wasn't cost-effective, and it wasn't moving a competitive automobile to the showroom," Mr. Abraham said.
General Motors Corp. Chairman Jack Smith said PNGV focused attention and money on trying to develop more fuel-efficient vehicles, but the world's largest automaker turned its research to fuel cells.
"As far as we're concerned, this is our highest priority in R&D; investment and has been for some time," Mr. Smith said.
A fuel cell produces energy from a chemical reaction when hydrogen is combined with oxygen. 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, requiring development of a new supply infrastructure.
DaimlerChrysler AG plans to market a fuel-cell-powered bus by the end of this year and some passenger cars by 2004, Chrysler Group President and Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche said during the ceremony.
Ford Motor Co. also plans a "limited build" of fuel-cell vehicles by 2004, said Tom Boddie, vice president of global core engineering.
The automakers have targeted 2010 as the earliest any mass-market versions of fuel-cell vehicles could be available, but one analyst said the partnership could accelerate the timetable.
"I think the biggest thing is, this will let the auto industry do what they do best, which is developing technology," said Thaddeus Malesh, director of alternative-power technologies at the market research firm J.D. Power and Associates.
An executive at Ballard Power Systems Corp., which supplies fuel cells for DaimlerChrysler and Ford, said the partnership will help overcome one of the major obstacles to a so-called "hydrogen society."
"To me, the most significant thing about this is the emphasis on the hydrogen infrastructure," said Vice President Ross Witschonke.
Environmental groups, however, scoffed at the new program, saying it was not so much aimed at developing emission-free fuel cells as it was at holding off legislation to increase fuel-economy standards.
"What is needed is regulatory guidance to raise efficiency across the board in cars and light trucks," said John DiCicco, a senior fellow with Environmental Defense.
"It's an enormous waste of taxpayer money," said Ann Mesnikoff, of the Sierra Club.
Just how much money the federal government will chip in is undecided, Mr. Abraham said. Proposals for the 2003 budget are due in a few weeks, he said, and discussions are ongoing.
He said foreign automakers were welcome to join the partnership, but when asked if they would be welcomed, Mr. Smith said, "There will have to be some discussions."
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 as it applies to the popular but gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.

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