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February 2002 Rant

"Fuel-Cell Car"

The Department of Energy just dropped an eight-year project to build an 80-mpg car. The project cost $1.5 billion. The program was started by the Clinton administration and Veep Al Gore was its biggest cheerleader. The Big Three automakers also kicked in about a billion dollars of their own money for the project. I find it amazing that all three automakers were able to build cars that got over 70 miles per gallon but could never hit that 80-mpg figure. All of that is now history and they never even tried to sell the public those 70-mpg cars. Besides a billion and a half bucks of tax money is nothing inside the DC beltway.

The 80-mpg project has been replaced with a fuel-cell car project with a budget of $125 million a year to start. On that very same day (!) GM revealed their AUTOnomy (photo to your left). The AUTOnomy, or skateboard, is a vehicle with four electric motors for each wheel powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. If it looks flat that’s because its chassis is about 6 inches thick. It will have interchangeable bodies.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles look good on paper. You fill the tank with compressed hydrogen gas and a reaction takes place with oxygen from the air yielding electricity that can run electric motors. Harmless water vapor comes out the tailpipe. Americans would no longer have to rely on oil from the Middle East and tailpipe emissions would no longer be a concern. Fuel cells are not cheap and there are no hydrogen filling stations yet. GM estimates a fuel cell vehicle will cost ten times as much as a gas powered vehicle. Because of the expensive research the automakers have been looking to Washington for some financial help.

Then there is the CAFÉ problem. The average fuel economy for cars and trucks is now the highest it has been in the last 21 years. Congress even increased the CAFÉ by a small amount this past year. If the automakers don’t get the fuel economy up then Congress could increase the CAFÉ requirements, which is something no automaker wants to happen. So the automakers are killing two birds with one stone. They are getting the government (and our tax dollars) to fund research plus they are using the excuse of working on these wonderful fuel cell vehicles to stall any increase in the CAFÉ requirements.

I thought that producing a car that got over 70 miles per gallon would be something of a success. Most motorcycles can’t get 70-mpg. But that wasn’t good enough to keep that federal project rolling. This fuel-cell program is something new, something different, and something that holds a lot of promise for the future. And the automakers get research via our tax dollars while not having to make any changes to their popular best selling vehicles. GM has used the “energy independent” ploy before. GM announced a new foreign oil energy independence vehicle in 1981 called the AGT-5. It was powered by powdered coal. Do you think you’ll be driving a hydrogen fuel-cell car in the near future?

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