Two Lanes to Efficiency

The Bush administration's decision to throw the resources of the federal government behind the development of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles warrants a blinking yellow light. Caution is in order.

The move has its visionary aspect. The administration is boosting a technology that in the next decade or so could replace the internal combustion engine, with its problems of pollution and reliance on oil. Greater government support for this line of research is welcome.

But it comes at an unnecessary cost. The administration also plans to pull the plug on the past 10 years of government-subsidized research into more fuel-efficient conventional cars. That program has had some success. Lighter materials have been developed and used in vehicles. Automakers have built concept cars that get 70 miles to the gallon.

The technology exists to make today's cars much more efficient, and consumers might be willing to pay the extra cost, if that's necessary.

But the industry, which has far too much influence in Washington, needs a prod - either through cut-rate basic research or new deadlines to meet tougher fuel-efficiency standards. Post-Sept. 11, a comprehensive plan to reduce dependency on foreign oil should start there. The internal combustion engine won't be disappearing soon.

Congress should challenge the administration to justify why it so easily gave up on fuel-efficiency research when fuel-cell cars are years away.

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