Fuel cell or fuel efficiency?

Environmentalists say we need to convert to a hydrogen-powered economy. Hydrogen is plentiful and clean, and hydrogen-fuel cells produce power without pollution. So when the Bush administration announced a major program to get hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road, you might have expected at least grudging praise.

This so-called "Freedom CAR" program endorses a hydrogen economy. It signals the internal combustion engine's status as an endangered species. It should accelerate interest, private investment, and research in fuel-cell technology.

Yet the announcement received more criticism than praise from environmentalists. In creating Freedom CAR, Bush dropped the Partnership for New Generation Vehicles (PNGV), which researched ways to make internal combustion engines more fuel efficient. If Freedom CAR is just a ruse by carmakers to put off developing more fuel-efficient vehicles, then criticism is justified. But we don't need to spend taxpayer money to figure out how to produce fuel-efficient gasoline-powered cars. We know how.

In the eight years of PNGV, the fuel economy of production vehicles in the US got worse. Complaints over the death of PNGV obscure the fact that it is not the technology but the demand for fuel-efficient cars that is lacking. If we want more such cars on the road, we need to demand them in the showrooms and through federal legislation.

US fuel economy requirements are a joke. Closing light-truck loopholes and raising overall mileage standards is the only way we'll see more fuel-efficient cars for sale. It is the only way taxpayers will see a return on their $1.5 billion investment in PNGV. Technology exists to make even SUVs more efficient. In fact, this technology is already being sold, but not by the companies that received public money for research and development.

Volkswagen, Honda, and Toyota sell cars that get between 50 and 99 miles a gallon. US automakers don't. To be fair, PNGV participant Ford will start selling a 40 m.p.g. hybrid SUV next year. Yet this enhances the point. US automakers already know how to make cars with better mileage.

For now, we must demand the more fuel-efficient vehicles that PNGV made possible. Longer term, Washington is right to target government funding where it will do the most good - overcoming the logistical and technological obstacles that keep pollution-free vehicles off the road. We should not be taken in by a false dichotomy between fuel cell and fuel efficiency. We can and should demand both.

• Ed Hunt is editor of www.tidepool.org.

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