Bush announces hydrogen-cell automobile initiative

Published March 1, 2002

The Bush administration will provide massive new funding to encourage American automobile manufacturers to research and develop hydrogen fuel cell cars, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced January 9 at the Detroit auto show.

The new initiative, termed Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research (CAR), will replace a Clinton-era program that encouraged the research and development of gasoline-electric hybrid cars.

“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,” said Abraham.

Hydrogen fuel cells work much like a battery, producing energy from chemical reactions. With hydrogen fuel cells, hydrogen is combined with oxygen, leaving water as its unused byproduct.

Clinton program rejected

In promoting hydrogen fuel cells, the Bush administration will scrap the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, initiated in 1993 and championed especially strongly by former Vice President Al Gore.

After receiving $1.5 billion in federal funding, the Partnership program was nowhere near its goal of making family-size sedans capable of getting 80 miles per gallon commercially viable by 2004. In addition to the $1.5 billion in federal funding, the Big Three auto manufacturers–General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, and Ford–had spent about $1 billion per year of their own money on related technologies.

The decision to discontinue the Partnership program has been styled a decision to cease throwing good money after bad. However, there are no guarantees that the newly announced initiative will fare any better than the old one. While automobile manufacturers, labor unions, and environmental activist groups have all touted the future potential of fuel cells, commercially feasible hydrogen fuel cell cars are likely to be decades away, if they prove feasible at all.

There is also no guarantee that the next administration will not do the same thing to CAR that the Bush administration is doing to the Partnership. Even so, Abraham and the automobile manufacturers expressed optimism regarding the new program.

“What I can do as energy secretary is promote research into energy efficiency,” said Abraham. “With respect to fuel-efficient vehicles I had three choices: first, continue with [the Partnership], a $1.5 billion program universally recognized as nowhere near producing a car that anyone would want to buy. Second, pull back all research money in this area; or third, propose a program to create a new car engine that uses no petroleum and emits no pollution. We chose the third course: hydrogen fuel cells suitable for all vehicles that can move us beyond fossil fuels and free us from dependence on imported oil. Such a vehicle can be a reality and would indeed be my dream car.”

Infrastructure issues loom large

The Big Three auto manufacturers believe hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles can be in showrooms by the middle of the decade. However, widespread commercial availability will be hampered by a national infrastructure of gasoline pumps, service stations, etc., geared toward gasoline-powered engines rather than hydrogen fuel cells.

Byron McCormick, GM’s executive director for fuel-cell activities, said infrastructure advances will be critical to the timeline and success of fuel cell automobiles. “The more certain we are about the infrastructure, the more aggressive we can be about the cars,” said McCormick. “Bottom line: (the government is a) huge force in what we’ve talking about.”

As if on cue, just two days before Abraham’s announcement General Motors unveiled a new fuel-cell concept car at the Detroit auto show. The car, called the Autonomy, has all of its essential elements in a small chassis under the body of the vehicle. The chassis can be fitted to a wide variety of automobile bodies, giving its owner the flexibility of buying a small sedan and later inexpensively upgrading to a minivan with the same chassis.

Moreover, because the internal combustion engine is gone and vehicle controls can be operated by electronic wires rather than mechanical connections, auto designers are free to create entirely new concepts of automobile design.

“This is more than just a technological or design experiment,” said Larry Burns, GM vice president of research and development planning. “Our end goal is nothing short of reinventing the automobile.”

“From a design perspective … almost all restraints are gone,” added Wayne Cherry, GM vice president of design. “No one ever said before, ‘Let’s take a clean sheet of paper and design a fuel cell.'”

The theory sounds appealing, but automobile manufacturers have a lot of work to do to produce a real-world product that will match their optimistic vision.