That was a key part of the recommendation made by the National Research Council in its seventh-annual review of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles.
Fuel cells use hydrogen, typically derived from natural gas or gasoline, to generate electricity. The process is attractive because it can be free or nearly free of harmful emissions and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
Fears about global warming, which many scientists say is caused by man-made greenhouse gases, continue to grow. So fuel cell research is more urgent now than when the partnership was created by Congress in 1993.
Fuel cells have the long-term potential to replace the internal-combustion engine as the dominant powerplant in cars and trucks. The first fuel cell vehicles probably will be available as early as 2003, the review said. But they probably will need pressurized hydrogen as fuel and as a result won't be feasible for mass marketing.
The council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, gave mixed grades to the partnership, which is a joint government-industry research project. For example, the council said the partnership won't reach its goal of building a production-ready proto-type of an 80-mpg sedan by 2004. The prototypes developed so far are too expensive and exceed emissions standards.
The White House and Congress will consider the council's report as they decide the future of the partnership. The report said the group has achieved these successes:
* The Big 3 are planning hybrid-electric light trucks in the next three years, which will save substantial amounts of fuel. Hybrids are propelled by both a small internal combustion engine and an electric motor. Because light-truck sales now match car sales, it makes sense for the automakers to make trucks more efficient, the council said.
* Concept vehicles unveiled last year used lightweight materials that saved between 20 percent and 31 percent of the vehicles' curb weights.
* Significant improvements were made on fuel cell components, such as fuel processors, heat exchangers and catalysts.
In addition to pursuing fuel cell research, the council also recommended that the partnership should:
* Pay more attention to the steel industry's efforts to develop lightweight steel bodies.
* Pursue advanced methods to treat exhaust gases.
* Determine how much sulfur should be removed from fuel to permit clean compression-ignition direct-injection engines.