Fool Cells

How Detroit Plays Americans For A Bunch Of Suckers. By Jack Doyle, author of 'Taken for a Ride.'

Published: 06-Feb-2003

uary 6, President Bush presented the details on his new "Freedom Car" proposal. The "freedom" Bush is hawking in his new gift to Detroit comes from hydrogen fuel-cell technology, which could legitimately revolutionize transportation in this country and around the world. Freedom Car also helps Bush’s image, since it creates the impression the United States will be "free" from its dependency on foreign oil.

Unfortunately, the hydrogen car George Bush first gushed about in his state of the union -- and the $1.2 billion program offered to help create it -- are simply more of Detroit’s fantasyland politics, designed to keep Congress from enacting tough fuel economy standards. Every time Congress and the public get close to thinking that real fuel economy is a good idea, Detroit rolls out some whiz-bang autorama to provide the illusion of progress. Bush’s proposal to provide for clean cars -- which is laudable on its face -- is but the latest in a long line of Detroit-White House "partnerships" dating to the Nixon-era that only provide diversion and political cover, not actual clean cars.

During the annual parade of auto shows in 2002, General Motors, a company which has lost 25 points of market share since the '50s, rolled out a futuristic-looking automotive underbody "skateboard" called Autonomy. Someday -- GM didn't say exactly when -- Autonomy would be crammed full of hydrogen-powered fuel cells and computers, and smog would end. A few days after GM’s show, U.S. Energy Secretary of Energy, Spencer Abraham, and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), were on hand with GM and DaimlerChrysler to announce the death of one federal "supercar" program and the creation of another. Being terminated was a Clinton-era program -- a 10-year joint venture with Detroit known as the "Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles" (PNGV) that was supposed to produce an 80 mpg family car. In its place, the Bush administration substituted a program focused not on fuel-efficiency but on hydrogen fuel-cell technology, "Freedom Car." However, most of these ventures go nowhere, as Clinton's "supercar" program shows.

At its September 1993 White House unveiling, Bill Clinton compared the PNGV to the Apollo project that put a man on the moon. GM’s CEO at the time, Jack Smith, said the efficiency gains to come from the new venture would amount to "nothing less than a major, even radical, breakthrough." A whole new class of car would follow, he assured his listeners. Sold to Congress as way to make the Big Three competitive with the Japanese, PNGV became the perfect political tool to keep Congress from moving to improve fuel economy, to tout as the industry’s global warming fighter, and to help undermine California's electric vehicle program.

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