WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Bush administration is abandoning an eight-year, $1.5 billion program to produce highly fuel efficient cars in favor of a government-industry push to develop vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
The Energy Department said Secretary Spencer Abraham planned to announce details of the new program, dubbed ``Freedom Car,'' at a major auto show in Detroit on Wednesday.
The Energy Department and senior White House policy officials in the Bush administration have all along been cool toward the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a program championed by the Clinton administration as the answer to improved automobile fuel economy.
Begun in 1993, the joint venture between the federal government and the Big Three domestic automakers was seen as a way to put family-size sedans that get 80 miles per gallon into showrooms by 2004.
Using advanced aerodynamics, new engine technologies and lighter composite materials, the companies have produced prototype vehicles getting 70 mpg, but have not come near developing a fleet of such vehicles for mass production.
Instead, the administration intends to focus on speeding up development of hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles, a technology that has attracted intense interest in recent years, although probably a decade away from producing large numbers of cars.
The new government-industry partnership ``will further the president's national energy policy, which calls for increased research in hydrogen technology to diversify and enhance America's energy security,'' says the Energy Department.
Abraham and executives of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., and DaimlerChrysler AG, were to unveil the new joint venture at the 2002 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The same companies were at the heart of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a program that then-Vice President Al Gore hailed as the breakthrough that would quadruple fuel economy in motor vehicle fleets.
But the Bush administration a year ago signaled it was planning to go another direction. It proposed slashing funding for the Clinton-era program that received nearly $1.5 billion in federal subsidies over eight years.
The new federal push for development of fuel cells, first reported this week by two Detroit newspapers, the Free Press and the News, is expected to spur industry efforts into developing motor vehicle engine and power systems that eventually will replace the internal combustion engine.
Although several automakers, including DaimlerChrysler, Ford and General Motors, have said they expect to have fuel-cell vehicles in showrooms within the next four or five years, wide availability of such cars is probably a decade or more away.
Abraham, who as a senator from Michigan supported the PNGV program, is expected to emphasize in his Detroit remarks that development of a hydrogen-based infrastructure will help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
A fuel cell produces energy from a chemical reaction when hydrogen is combined with oxygen. It is environmentally sound since the only byproduct is water, instead of toxic fumes and carbon dioxide, the major pollutant contributing to global warming.
In recent years, the cost of fuel cells has dropped sharply. Hydrogen can be produced from natural gas aboard vehicles or pure hydrogen can be used, requiring development of a new supply infrastructure.