Feds Dump Fuel Efficiency for Fuel Cells

DETROIT, Michigan, January 9, 2002 (ENS) - The federal government is changing its emphasis regarding developing cleaner vehicles, shifting from high fuel economy cars to hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles.

Addressing an audience of auto industry executives, reporters and the public at the Detroit Auto Show, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham today announced a new cooperative automotive research partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Council for Automotive Research (USCAR).

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Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham (Photo courtesy DOE)
"I am pleased to announce a new public private partnership between my department and the nation's automobile manufacturers to promote the development of hydrogen as a primary fuel for cars and trucks," Abraham said, noting that hydrogen powered vehicles would help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

"Under this new program, which we call Freedom CAR, the government and the private sector will fund research into advanced, efficient fuel cell technology which uses hydrogen to power automobiles without creating any pollution," explained Abraham. "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."

The Freedom CAR - CAR stands for Cooperative Automotive Research - project is intended to replace the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) program, launched by the Clinton administration to promote the development of high fuel efficiency vehicles.

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Gasoline powered 2002 Nissan Altima wins car of the year at the North American International Auto Show. Jed Connelly and Bill Kirrane of Nissan display the award. (PRNews photo by Jerome Magid)
In March, 2000, America's Big Three automakers - General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Daimler Chrysler Corporation - unveiled concept cars which achieved close to 80 miles per gallon of gasoline using hybrid gasoline-electric engines. The vehicles met some of the goals of the PNGV, but were still years away from commercial production.

Secretary Abraham said that Freedom CAR will focus on the research needed to develop technologies such as fuel cells and hydrogen from domestic renewable sources. The program's long term goal is to develop technologies for hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles that will require no foreign oil and emit no harmful pollutants or greenhouse gases.

The transition of vehicles from gasoline to hydrogen is viewed as critical both to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and to reducing U.S. reliance on foreign oil, the DOE says. America's transportation sector is 95 percent dependent on petroleum, with transportation consuming 67 percent of the petroleum used in the U.S.

"Freedom CAR isn't an automobile, it's a new approach to powering the cars of the future," said Abraham. "It will be a big win for everyone - for consumers, for auto workers, for the environment and for our nation's energy security."

Freedom CAR will require a significant financial investment by both the federal government and the auto industry, and will involve a concerted long term effort. A formal partnership agreement is expected within the next few months.

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DaimlerChrysler Necar fuel cell powered car (Photo courtesy Fuelcells.org)
David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center, said the program "is pointed in the right direction, but by itself it's going nowhere."

Noting that it is expected to take at least 10 years to bring a fuel cell powered car to market, during which time Americans will buy about 150 million vehicles, Hawkins warned that the U.S. "can't afford another research program that just gives billions of dollars in subsidies to the automobile industry with no commitment from them to actually produce advanced vehicles for consumers to buy."

"We have the technology to raise fuel economy standards now for the cars that Americans will buy in the next decade," added Hawkins. "Doing that will save billions of barrels of oil while fuel cell vehicles are being developed."

Earlier this week, the conservation group Environmental Defense released a comprehensive study of fuel cell vehicles published by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), detailing the hurdles to be crossed before fuel cell vehicles can see market success.

"Compared to other long run options, fuel cells hold great promise to address multiple concerns, including air pollution, oil dependence, and global warming, while efficiently meeting car customers' growing needs for on board electricity," said John DeCicco, a senior fellow with Environmental Defense.

But the study found that the absence of market wide requirements for higher fuel economy blocks progress on many vehicle technologies, including fuel cells.

Several auto makers have committed to putting fuel cell vehicles on the road by 2005. But the report identifies a "deployability gap" of another 10 to 15 years before a business case can be made for mass market fuel cell cars.

"Closing this gap entails speeding up progress along several challenging technical pathways," said DeCicco.

At the Detroit Auto Show's media preview on Monday, General Motors unveiled its newest concept car - the AUTOnomy, a car powered by a hydrogen fed fuel cell. GM says the AUTOnomy could achieve the fuel efficiency equivalent of more than 100 miles per gallon, while producing no emissions other than plain water.

The automaker is seeking 24 patents related to the AUTOnomy, and hopes to have a working test model of the car by the end of the year.

Fuel cell vehicles already in existence are pictured at: http://www.fuelcells.org/fct/galtrans.html