DETROIT — The Bush administration launched a partnership Wednesday with domestic automakers to spur the growth of hydrogen fuel cells to power the next generation of cars and trucks and help 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 during the announcement at Cobo Hall, site of the North American International Auto Show.
It is hoped that the new federal push for development of fuel cells will spur industry efforts to develop motor vehicle engine and power systems that eventually will replace the internal combustion engine.
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The program replaces the Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle program started by the Clinton administration to develop a vehicle that could attain 80 mpg fuel efficiency.
Automobile fuel economy is likely 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 SUVs.
The Energy Department and senior White House policy officials in the Bush administration have expressed little enthusiasm for the previous fuel efficiency program, a government-industry effort aimed at quadrupling automobile fuel economy by the middle of this decade.
The department said the new fuel cell program would supersede the old partnership, which had pushed industry development of hybrid gasoline-electric cars now just entering the market. The old program had focused industry attention on finding ways to improve fuel economy without reducing car size and zip.
Begun in 1993 and championed by the Clinton administration — especially Vice President Al Gore — the joint venture between the federal government and the Big Three domestic automakers was seen as a way to put family-size sedans that get 80 miles per gallon into showrooms by 2004.
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 fuel economy 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 administration proposed slashing funding for the program as part of its first budget a year ago. Nevertheless, Congress continued to keep it alive, even as some environmental groups and the watchdog Taxpayers for Common Sense called the program an unnecessary subsidy for the car industry.
Instead, the administration intends to focus on speeding up development of hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles.
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.
A fuel cell produces energy from a chemical reaction when hydrogen is combined with oxygen.
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