The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, Jan. 31:

One of the most unexpected passages in President Bush’s State of the Union speech was his declaration that he would ask Congress to spend $1.2 billion to help develop a hydrogen-powered automobile. Unexpected because this was George Bush, bete noire of environmentalists, spending big money on what is considered the Holy Grail of the green set: pollution-free autos.

We’ll give Bush credit for vision – he’s right that America should lead the world in developing a car that produces water, not exhaust fumes. That would, of course, greatly reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But it’s hard to see why the government needs to be involved in this formidable scientific challenge.

Here’s a cautionary tale on the limits of government in such matters as building more efficient autos: The Chicago Tribune last December published a series by reporter Sam Roe on the disastrous decade-long government project to build the so-called “Supercar,” an 80-mile-per-gallon automobile. That project wasted $1.5 billion and was, Roe reported, “the victim of bureaucratic turf wars, a hostile auto industry and self-serving politicians.”

That’s a primer on why the government shouldn’t be in the business of building cars. Such development is, and has always been, best left to industry. And indeed, industry is reportedly spending billions on hydrogen technology.

The principle is simple: Cells combine hydrogen fuel – liquid or high-pressured gas – with oxygen from the air to create electricity. The electricity powers the car.

The auto industry has tinkered with hydrogen fuel cells since the 1960s. Some vehicles have already been tested, including three Chicago Transit Authority buses outfitted with hydrogen-powered engines in a federally subsidized pilot program that ran from 1998 to 2000.

Still, there are many hurdles – technical and economic – to overcome before hydrogen fuel cells are safe, affordable and easy to mass-produce. The buses the CTA tested, for example, carried a price tag of $1.4 million each, compared to $250,000 for new diesel-engine buses.

That’s why most experts say perfecting the technology and being able to mass produce a car that people will buy is a long, long way off – decades if not more.

The list of hurdles is long: Hydrogen is far more expensive to produce than gasoline. Current fuel cells are cumbersome. Hydrogen is also quite volatile, and can be more flammable than gasoline. And then there’s the whole question of how motorists would refuel. That would require a national system of hydrogen stations, akin to the gas stations of today. There also are serious questions about how powerful such a vehicle would be.

Those are just some of the obstacles.

The president’s hope that “the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen” is laudable. We hope so, too. But it won’t happen because government threw money at research; it will happen because the automobile industry recognizes that American consumers will line up to buy such cars in the same numbers that now drool over SUVs.

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