The Bush administration has pulled the plug on the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, an ambitious government-industry effort aimed at producing family sedans that would get 80 miles to the gallon, using a combination of gasoline and electrical power.
Instead, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced at the Detroit auto show earlier this month that the government was shifting its support to "the development of hydrogen as a primary fuel for cars and trucks, as part of our effort to reduce American dependence on foreign oil."
Abraham said the long-term result would be vehicles that are more efficient, cheaper to operate, pollution free and non dependent on imported oil.
That's great, but the key phrase is "long-term."
The hydrogen powered fuel cells are marvelous pieces of technology. They use a chemical reaction that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electrical power. The only by-product is water.
First peak: General Motors unveiled its vision of this new car at the auto show. Its chassis was similar to a large skateboard, with an individual fuel cell powering each of the four wheels. Interchangeable bodies -- anything from a sports car to a minivan -- could be mounted to the chassis.
"Our end goal is nothing short of reinventing the automobile," boasted Larry Burns, GM vice president of research and development and planning.
And a noble goal that is. Americans love their automobiles. The automobile and our highway system contribute immeasurably to that sense of independence that defines America.
At the same time, Americans pay a heavy price for this love affair, especially in pollution and in our dependence on foreign oil. So reinventing the automobile looks alike a good thing.
But why, we wonder, did the Bush administration feel it was necessary to abandon the gas-electric hybrid in order to pursue the fuel cell?
The hybrid is much closer to reality -- indeed, Toyota and Honda are already marketing such vehicles -- and the hybrid could serve as a useful bridge into the hydrogen age.
Changing the way Americans drive their 215 million cars and trucks is no small undertaking. It will take a long, long time to replace a high percentage of those vehicles with hydrogen-powered cars and trucks, and longer still to install hydrogen dispensers in all the nation's service stations.
By abandoning the short-range hybrid for the long-range hydrogen car, the administration is only assuring that the United States will be dependent on oil -- much of it imported -- for decades to come.