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FreedomCAR: Will It Drive?

Experts say lack of goals bedevils new U.S. fuel-cell initiative.
January 28, 2002

In 1993, Vice President Al Gore announced a research initiative comparable, he said, to President Kennedy’s mission to put a man on the moon: by 2004, build a car that gets 34 kilometers per liter. But by 2000, it was clear the $1.5 billion program-dubbed the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles-would fall short of that goal. But at least it had a goal-one that motivated researchers, inspired the public and provided a way to measure progress. And experts say that’s what’s glaringly absent from the replacement initiative announced earlier this month by Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham. Called FreedomCAR, it scrapped the Clinton/Gore plan-which focused on gaining efficiency by linking internal combustion engines with electric motors-in favor of one focused exclusively on fuel cells, a cleaner but more distant technology for cars. But Abraham did not articulate what the industry had to accomplish in a fuel-cell car, or by when.

Those are unfortunate omissions, says Vernon Roan, vice chairman of the committee that reviewed the Clinton/Gore plan for the National Academy of Sciences, an independent, honorary society that advises the government on science and technology. “You have to have a focus,” says Roan, director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Engineering at the University of Florida, Palm Beach. “It becomes impossible to compare what different developers are doing if you don’t.”

One reason for the lack of a clear target is the long horizon for automotive fuel cells. Fuel cells, which chemically generate electricity from hydrogen and produce only water as waste, were first developed for the U.S. space program in the 1960s. They are commercially available today as power sources for buildings and machinery (see “Fuel Cells vs. the Grid”), and may soon power consumer electronics (see “A Fuel Cell in Your Phone”). But experts agree that affordable cells powerful enough to run an electric car are at least a decade from reaching highways in significant numbers (see “Fill ‘er Up with Hydrogen”).

The Bush administration’s focus on a technology so far from market-readiness could mean missing important improvements to current technology, says another member of the Academy panel, MIT Sloan Auto Lab Director John Heywood. He stresses that incremental advances to existing technology-specifically, to the internal combustion engine-are every bit as important as revolutionary leaps. “It’s really important at a broad strategic level that we work hard to improve mainstream technology in the short term,” he said. “Even if people do develop fuel-cell technology, the horizon is fairly long, and if we don’t improve our internal combustion technology our dependence on petroleum will only increase.”

Such criticism was widely reported when it was announced, but backers of the Bush plan say smaller interim goals will be more useful than Gore’s Man-on-the-Moon-like program to build a fuel efficient car, which never proved attainable. Bob Culver, executive director of the U.S. Council for Automotive Research, a research alliance of the Big Three automakers, says his organization is helping the administration do just that-draft interim technical targets for fuel-cell performance. “A lot of people say longer term means no accountability in the near term,” Culver says. “We need interim milestones so we can show progress is being made and to allow us to redirect money from losing projects to winning ones.”

And even without a single, moon-landing, end-of-decade type of goal, FreedomCAR research will pay off in the near term more indirectly, says Stephen Zimmer, director of advanced technology portfolio management at Auburn Hills, MI-based DaimlerChrysler Corp. That’s because fuel-cell car research isn’t just about fuel cells themselves, but also about the electric drive technologies that fuel-cell cars need to really make them get up and go. These electric drive technologies-ranging from improved batteries to brakes that help recharge those batteries-are also useful for hybrid vehicles, which combine an electric motor with an internal combustion engine. With car buyers already creating waiting lists for existing hybrid sedans such as Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Insight, Detroit is very much in the hybrid development game, Zimmer adds. “I believe that we will continue to work on hybrid-type solutions, not as the best solution, but as a transition strategy as we continue to move toward fuel cell vehicles,” he says.

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