msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/31/2005 1:31:35 PM ET 2005-03-31T18:31:35

Fuel cell cars for the rest of us starting in 2020? That's the goal that the Bush administration emphasized as it formalized "learning demonstration teams" with carmakers and energy companies.

Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman spelled out the team members at an industry conference on Wednesday.

“If our research program is successful, it is not unreasonable to think we could see the beginning of mass market penetration by 2020,” Bodman said at the National Hydrogen Association’s annual conference.

"The idea is eventually to offer consumers cars and trucks that perform just like today’s and don’t cost any more," he added. "The only significant difference is they will run on domestically produced, clean, safe hydrogen rather than gasoline from imported oil."

$380 million cost
Bodman said the teams would share in at least half of the project funding, estimated at about $380 million. The companies will evaluate the fuel cells under hot and cold conditions, consider production options and ways of evaluating hydrogen infrastructure.

As part of the program:

  • General Motors plans to build a fleet of 40 hydrogen fuel vehicles and distribute them in California and Michigan as well as in Washington, D.C., and New York City. It plans to spend $44 million in total for their manufacture, transportation and upkeep and the building of hydrogen refueling stations in California and the East Coast corridor from New York City to Washington, D.C.
  • DaimlerChrysler, which now has the largest fleet of fuel cell vehicles of any automaker, and three energy partners will also invest $44 million to place such vehicles with consumers who will provide feedback on their performance.
  • Others companies will search for the best way to produce hydrogen and test the fuel cells and how the technology would fare in hot, humid climates.

The fuel cells run on the energy produced when hydrogen and oxygen are mixed, rather than using gasoline. The only byproduct of a fuel cell is water. The technology has been used in experimental vehicles and as a power supply for some buildings.

Big push, but obstacles too
President Bush since 2003 has pushed a 5-year, $1.7 billion research program to develop hydrogen as America’s next energy source. He has predicted Americans will drive cars operated by hydrogen-powered fuel cells in less than two decades.

The program has involved workshops with state and local officials on the benefits of hydrogen power and conducted demonstration projects nationwide.

Most major automakers are developing hydrogen fuel cells but say the cost of the vehicles and a lack of fueling stations make them unmarketable for now.

Bodman acknowledged the hurdles. "There are a number of technological challenges to overcome before this vision is realized," he said. "For instance, different climates can affect the performance and durability of fuel cells, and different options for producing and delivering hydrogen need to be explored."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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