Dear Tom and Ray:
President Bush talked about a "hydrogen car" in his State of the Union address. Is this a realistic possibility during the Bush administration? -- Jim
RAY: Maybe during the Jenna Bush administration, Jim. The technology itself works, but people "in the know" say it's going to be at least 20 years before hydrogen-powered cars are viable on a large scale -- if then.
TOM: The main problems are: (1) the fuel cell "stacks" are still incredibly expensive to build, (2) the range of the cars is insufficient and (3) there's no national infrastructure (like gas stations) to support hydrogen. So it's not going to happen anytime soon.
RAY: So, why is the president talking about hydrogen-powered cars? Well, in my humble opinion, he's creating a distraction.
TOM: I think so, too. You probably know that we now import boatloads of foreign oil every day. And almost everybody agrees that this is not a good thing (except for the countries that sell us the oil). So what do you do about it?
RAY: Well, you can try to find more oil here at home, by drilling in Alaska's forests, for instance. Or you can force people to use less oil. The president knows that both of these options are pretty unpopular. So he's doing what any good politician would do: He's changing the subject.
TOM: Here's another reason why he might want to distract us from thoughts of fuel economy and foreign oil. With no pressure on American car companies to increase gas mileage, the Japanese have taken a significant lead in the most important new propulsion technology in decades: hybrid engines. Hybrid engines use battery power some of the time and gasoline power at other times, and they never have to be plugged in. They're a great way to increase mileage without sacrificing power or convenience. And you're going to see Americans adopting them in big numbers over the next five to 10 years.
RAY: Who makes the best-selling hybrid cars in America? Honda and Toyota. So, instead of urging America to make more fuel-efficient cars and cut down on foreign oil by raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, or urging U.S. manufacturers to catch up with the Japanese on hybrids -- which would make a huge difference right away -- the president's talk about hydrogen cars is, essentially, the old "Hey, everybody, look over there!"