Son of supercar

Posted: Jan 16, 2002 12:00 AM
Don't cry for the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a federal program conceived by the Clinton administration in 1993 and terminated by Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham after consuming $1.5 billion of your tax dollars, with matching funds from the Big Three. The administration called it the Supercar. But Porkmobile would have been more like it. Yes, the PNGV's purpose was noble: manufacturing an affordable family car that gets 80 miles per gallon, with production of a prototype by 2004. But it was destined to stall. The technology simply doesn't exist to make a family-size car with close to three times the fuel efficiency of most cars -- and at an affordable cost. Said Abraham spokeswoman Jill Schroeder, the PNGV was saddled with "a bad mission from the get-go." The only thing the Supercar could do proficiently was provide camouflage -- for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who ran for office on promises to legislate for average fuel efficiency of 40 to 45 miles per gallon, but never bothered to raise by even one ounce the 27.5 mpg standard set in 1988. And camouflage for the Big Three, so that they could say they were working to improve fuel efficiency, even as they manufactured bigger and more monstrous gas-guzzlers. Thus, Abraham is to be commended for euthanizing the PNGV. Except that he is replacing the PNGV with something perhaps even more egregious. Exit the Supercar. Enter what Abraham calls the "Freedom CAR." (CAR stands for Cooperative Automotive Research.) And this should send a shiver down your spine: funding unknown, although the word is that it will not be cheaper than the junked PNGV. Freedom CAR's goal is to produce affordable cars powered by fuel cells, which convert hydrogen to electricity and leave only water as a byproduct. If it were to work, America's dependence on foreign oil would end. Affordable is a toughie. Said Andrew Frank, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California at Davis, "You can't buy a fuel cell for less than $100,000" -- and that doesn't include the car. Other problems are, well, getting hydrogen. "There are no hydrogen mines," Frank noted. The cells likely would make hydrogen from gasoline or some other fuel. Which raises a number of safety issues concerning volatile fuel, high-pressure machinery and fast-moving vehicles. Time is the biggest problem. Schroeder estimated it would take 10 to 20 years to hit paydirt. The Wall Street Journal reported that Iceland plans to convert to an all fuel-cell economy but does not expect to finish the conversion until 2030. And as Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union noted, "If (automobile fuel cells) have such great promise, investors in the private sector would be lined outside the door to get in on the ground floor." With the budget problems he's about to have, President Bush should save the taxpayers some money and leave the Freedom CAR abandoned at the side of the highway of life. Instead of funding research for the next generation of drivers, Bush should work to decrease American consumption of oil by raising car fuel-efficiency standards. It's in the nation's security interests to do so, and the administration -- this is a change -- is studying the issue. Instead of taking taxpayers for a ride, Bush should put the brakes on Detroit's long, gas-guzzling ride.