WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration promised that its taxpayer-supported automotive research would be a revolutionary break from the past.
But it is delivering something else: a makeover of a 1990s concept that spent $1.5 billion and produced few tangible results.
The Bush program, called FreedomCAR, was unveiled with much fanfare early this year as the way to develop pollution-free, petroleum-free fuel cell vehicles. The administration said FreedomCAR would replace the Clinton administration's Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, which it viewed as a failure.
But FreedomCAR is proving to be more like the partnership than different from it. The similarities have been revealed in administration budget documents, in interviews conducted by Automotive News and in the administration's own testimony to Congress.
While there may be advantages to continuity in research, the administration and the automakers are in danger of repeating the partnership history. If they do, hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money will be spent on research that delivers little breakthrough technology to the marketplace.
Critics say the program would provide cover to the industry and to officeholders, enabling them to say they are doing something about the automobile's thirst for imported oil and its impact on the environment. Meanwhile, critics say, the tough, politically costly decisions about fuel economy are put off.
FreedomCAR also raises new questions. Chief among them is why more research money is going toward vehicle hardware than toward finding ways to produce and deliver hydrogen. Private industry already is spending billions on fuel cell development, but fuel availability is acknowledged to be the main obstacle to widespread fuel cell use.