Monday, July 07, 2008

No, both parties aren't equally responsible

While it's tempting to yell "A pox on both their houses" or proclaim that, like a certain Agatha Christie murder, we're all culpable, there's a rather important fact that this NYTimes article omits: the role of the mythical fuel cell vehicle in killing progress in fuel efficiency.

Anyone here remember the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV)? No? Here:
By 1997, participants had settled on the specs of the “super car,” as it became known: the sedan would be a lightweight, diesel-electric hybrid. (Diesel engines, because they use a higher compression ratio, consume less fuel per mile than gasoline engines do.) By 2000, the Big Three had all produced concept cars, which were unveiled with much fanfare at the North American Auto Show, in Detroit. G.M.’s car, which was called the Precept, came equipped with two electric motors, one mounted on each axle. Ford’s Prodigy featured an aluminum body and rear-facing cameras in place of side-view mirrors, and the Dodge ESX3 was made in large part out of plastic.

The concept cars were wheeled out, then wheeled away, never to be seen again. In January, 2002, just months before the prototypes of the vehicles were supposed to be delivered and after more than a billion dollars of federal money had been spent, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that the Bush Administration was scrapping the project. When he delivered the announcement, Abraham was flanked by top executives from the Big Three, at least one of whom—G.M.’s chairman, Jack Smith—had stood next to President Clinton when he launched the program, eight years earlier. Abraham explained—and the auto executives seemed to agree—that the program had been based on a fundamentally flawed premise. The future of the car didn’t lie with diesel hybrids or any other technology that would allow vehicles to get eighty miles to the gallon. “We can do better than that,” Abraham declared. The Administration and the automakers, he said, were undertaking a new, even more ambitious venture, called FreedomCAR. The goal of this project was to produce vehicles that would run on pure hydrogen.
After taking more than a billion dollars in subsidies and producing prototypes that all got between 70 and 85 mpg, Detroit and the Bush Administration killed the PNGV in the belief that fuel cell vehicles could be made to get even better.

One problem: they probably can't, and they certainly can't in the near and medium term. Even if fuel cell cars eventually corner the market (and do we have enough platinum to even build enough cells? probably not) it's still perfectly reasonable to build diesel hybrids as a solution for the next 20-30 years. Also fantastic would be if somebody cracks algal biodiesel, the most promising renewable fuel on the horizon.

Between this PNGV and the fate of the EV-1, the only thing of substance that fuel cells have accomplished has been to kill more reasonable short-term solutions in the name of a near-fantasy long term solution.

The GOP and Detroit colluded to kill some of the most promising technologies after they'd been paid to the tune of more than $1 billion in public funds. Yes, they were helped by bad Democrats like Dingell and Levin, but it was Bush who pushed the PNGV off the cliff.

1 comment:

JimBobby said...

Whooee! Sounds like a classic case of P. vs. P. The Perfect as the enemy of the Possible.

The auto industry wants to squeeze the last drops of profit out of the gas-guzzlin' dinosaurs. Nobody's surprised Detroit's in trouble. Anybody who was payin' attention could see the writing on the wall. They seen it, too, I betcha. It was still profitable up until the last year, or so, to keep pumpin' out PolluteMobiles.

The dumbass public kept buyin' SUV's and F-150's, didn't they?