Sea change in US car policy

Posted: 14 January 2002

The Bush administration is abandoning a $1.5 billion, eight-year project to develop fuel-efficient petrol cars and is shifting its energy policy towards developing cleaner, hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles.

The sea change in policy comes in the wake of September 11 and now forms part of the administration's drive to reduce dependence on foreign oil. The United States comprises only 5 per cent of the world's population but consumes 25 per cent of the world's oil, mostly in the form petrol. America's transport sector is 95 per cent dependent on petroleum and consuming 67 per cent of the petroleum used in the US.

The new programme called Freedom CAR, announced by US Energy Secretary, Spencer Abraham, at the Detroit Auto show on January 9, 2002, forms part of a new co-operative automotive research partnership between the US Department of Energy (DOE) and the US Council for Automotive Research. Its long-term goal according to Abraham is to speed the replacement of the internal combustion engine by developing hydrogen powered-fuel cell vehicles that will require no foreign oil and emit no harmful pollutants or greenhouse gases.

Freedom CAR "is 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."

The fuel cell car engine creates electricity from stored hydrogen and oxygen in the air, through an electrochemical process that emits only water and heat as by-products.

Raising fuel efficiency

The Freedom CAR project replaces the Clinton Administration's $1.5 billion eight-year plan to produce fuel-efficient vehicles capable of 80 miles to the gallon. Some prototypes were developed using hybrid petrol-electric engines achieving 70 miles to the gallon but none made it to commercial production.

The Bush adminstration would not discuss proposed spending on Freedom CAR until its 2003 budget proposal is released in February but has, in the meantime, pledged $127 million in federal funds this year for the Clinton plan it replaces.

The decision to abandon Clinton's plan was met with mixed reaction from environmental groups. Noting that it would take about 10 years to bring fuel cell-powered cars into mass production during which time Americans would buy about 150 million vehicles, David Hawkins, Deputy Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council warned that the US, "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."

Critical of the fact that Freedom Car does not compel car manufacturers to produce fuel cell powered cars, Steven Nadel, Executive Director of the American council for energy efficient economy said: "I think fuel cells are a useful long-term goal. But the big problem is that the Bush administration proposal does not seem to address anything for the next 10 years. There's a lot of technology that can go into cars in 2006 or 2007."

Future cars

Meanwhile, the Big Three car manufacturers - General Motors (GM), Ford Motor Company and Daimler Chrysler Corporation - will be introducing hybrid vehicles, using diesel-electric engines, by 2004. Toyota and Honda already produce hybrids achieving at least 40 miles to the gallon using petrol, a cleaner fuel than diesel.

At the Detroit Auto Show, General Motors unveiled its newest concept car - the AUTOnomy, a car powered by a hydrogen fed fuel cell which has the capability of achieving the fuel-efficiency of more than 100 miles to the gallon, while producing no emissions other than water and heat. GM is seeking 24 patents for this model and hopes to have a working test car by the end of the year.

Sources: Environment News Service 9 January 2002 and The International Herald Tribune, 10 January 2002.

Related links:

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

  • Worldwatch Paper 157: Hydrogen Futures: Toward a Sustainable Energy System
  • Read: Hydrogen Q&A

  • The Clean Car is Coming

  • First fuel cell cars

  • Iceland shifts to hydrogen economy