Any alternative fuel for dream of the open road?

Imagine driving a car that hums along quietly, spits out no fumes but only a little water vapor, and never needs to stop for gasoline.

Imagine that this car, if adopted by Americans in sufficient numbers, could wipe out US dependence on foreign oil and solve one heck of a lot of the country's international problems.

Fantasy? Actually, no. The technology is within reach, but the market for this car presently remains less than 5 percent of the overall US automobile market. The problem is that Americans remain wedded to their gasoline guzzlers, which are mass-produced cheaply and for which fuel is conveniently available at every street corner. The alternative-fuel vehicles, as they are known, are still a novelty, expensive to buy, and inconvenient to refuel.

Some visionaries see a future in which most cars will not use gasoline, but will be powered by electricity, ethanol, or hydrogen cells. One such visionary is a US senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch, who sometimes seems to have more solutions than there are problems. He's been campaigning for years on behalf of alternative-fuel vehicles. He's tantalized by the pace of technological change - "Why, I had an intern last summer who'd never seen a typewriter," he says - and thinks we ought to see a revolution in transportation to match the revolution in the information age.

Congress may be getting on board. Hatch-sponsored legislation to give tax credits ranging from $2,000 to $40,000 to individuals and companies investing in alternative-fuel vehicles is inching ahead. He would also give credits to buyers of alternative fuels, and credits to encourage the building of more refueling stations for alternative fuels. One of today's problems for would-be buyers of alternative-fueled cars is that fueling stations for them are few and far apart.

President Bush, while mindful of Americans' love affair with their gas-powered cars, sees a future for alternative-fuel cars, too. In his January State of the Union address, he talked up hydrogen-powered cars and hopes to spend $1.7 billion during the next five years on hydrogen-fuel development. He knows his nation imports 11 million barrels of oil a day more than it produces itself, much of it to keep American cars and trucks running. A barrel of oil is 42 gallons. You do the arithmetic. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly cited US imported oil statistics at 11 billion barrels a day.]

Hydrogen can be produced domestically. Not only would it free the US from dependence on foreign oil imports, but it would power ultraclean internal-combustion engines that would reduce auto emissions by more than 90 percent. Environmentalists love it.

Prototype hydrogen-powered vehicles are already here. General Motors delivered six of them to Congress last month for legislators to test-drive during the next two years. But they cost about $1 million each to develop. They can travel about 300 miles before requiring more hydrogen to convert into electric power, and there is that problem of there not being too many hydrogen refueling pumps around.

Mr. Bush wants to see hydrogen fuel-cell cars on the road by 2015, but some say it could take much longer.

Until hydrogen-powered cars are accepted by the public and available at reasonable cost - and a network of hydrogen-refueling stations is available to service them - hybrid cars may find a market niche. These are cars that combine internal-combustion gasoline engines with electric motor backups. Currently there is not a wide choice: There are only three on sale in the US, the Honda Insight and Civic, and the Toyota Prius. But more are on the way. Ford is working on a hybrid version of its Escape sport utility vehicle and plans to produce a hybrid version of its coming Futura, successor to its popular Taurus. Other automakers have similar plans for hybrid models.

In the commercial field, FedEx has ordered 20 experimental trucks that combine electric motors with diesel engines. If they prove successful, cutting fuel consumption by as much as 50 percent, FedEx might convert its entire fleet of 30,000 trucks to the hybrid technology.

From gas-powered cars to hybrids to hydrogen-powered autos? Government can jump-start some of the research for this transition, but private industry will have to finance the development and provide the infrastructure that can fuel such cars. Americans who love the open road won't buy the cars unless they're sure they can go anywhere in the US to refuel them.

This may be a dream. But what a dream!

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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