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Making vrrroom for cleaner-burning cars
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire


September 25, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Speed and looks may have less to do with what Americans drive in the future than the fuel those vehicles use, top government and auto-industry officials say.

U.S. auto manufacturers plan to make vehicles that will use renewable, cleaner-burning fuels such as ethanol and hydrogen, possibly replacing gasoline altogether.




But it's not going to be easy, auto-industry experts say. Other experts say ethanol and hydrogen aren't good enough.

Dave Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, said that no one really knows what technology is going to catch on - not even car manufacturers.

"There's a lot of fantasy that sort of abound in this world right now," he said.

He said technologies might look promising, but "billions upon billions of dollars" will be needed to make them realities. For example, shifting to a new fuel will require new refineries to process the fuel and get it to fueling stations.

Cole said companies are helping each other because of the high costs of producing technology such as fuel cells. Cole said he calls it "coopetition" - automakers working together in markets in which they will later compete.

General Motors has invested more than $1 billion in its fuel-cell program and expects to spend another $1 billion by 2010, a spokesman said. A fuel-cell vehicle can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Fuel-cell cars run on hydrogen and have virtually no polluting emissions, but the engines last only about 50,000 miles.

In a parking lot near the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, legislators and GM and Ford officials voiced support for alternative energy and checked out a green-and-yellow ethanol-fueled Chevrolet Impala bearing GM's mantra for corn-ethanol fuel - "Live green, go yellow."

The car uses E85 fuel, which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Ethanol comes from fermented biomass products such as corn.

U.S. support for alternative fuels such as ethanol is a new thing, said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

"Brazil made the decision to do this back in the '70s," he said, noting he's been interested in ethanol for 30 years. "Oil companies did everything in their power to drive us out of business."

The committee unanimously passed a non-binding resolution Thursday, called "25 by 25," which sets a goal of getting 25 percent of all U.S. energy consumption from renewable sources such as corn-ethanol by 2025.

Peterson said it took $3-a-gallon gas to give Americans a reason to go green.

"We have to quit fighting wars over oil. We have to stop buying oil from people who hate us," he said, adding that ethanol could change rural America by creating jobs that will attract people back to farms from cities.

According to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, about 1,000 gas stations have E85 pumps, mostly in the Midwest, but the numbers are rising nationally.

James Jordan, a researcher at the Polytechnic University of New York who focuses on the future of electric vehicles, said ethanol may not be the best choice - considering that the United States is the world's largest food supplier.

In an op-ed piece in The Washington Post July 2, Jordan and co-author James Powell wrote: "Even if all of the 300 million acres (500,000 square miles) of currently harvested U.S. cropland produced ethanol, it wouldn't supply all of the gasoline and diesel fuel we now burn for transport, and it would supply only about half of the needs for the year 2025."

In an interview, Jordan said that the world's population will probably grow from today's 6 billion to 9 billion by 2050, putting more strain on U.S. agriculture.

He said he understands the appeal of ethanol, "but the problem of it is the conflict with food."

Peterson and Jordan said automakers should look beyond ethanol-based fuels. Jordan said electric cars could be the wave of the future, with Peterson recommending hydrogen.

Recently, GM said it will loan more than 100 hydrogen-powered Chevrolet Equinoxes to consumers to test-drive in the capital and in California and New York next year. GM also delivered a fuel-cell Equinox on Thursday for the U.S. Army to test.

The U.S. market has had some success in alternative-fuel vehicles.

According to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade association for the top nine automakers, there are 9 million alternative-fuel cars, including hybrids that use electric motors to assist the gas engine, on the road today, up from 3 million in 2000. Almost 1 million such cars have been sold this year.

Fred Weber, AAM's chief executive officer, said there are 800 million vehicles of all types worldwide on the road today, and by 2020 there will be 1.2 billion - creating even more demand for fuel and better technology.


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