FreedomCAR: A Realistic Goal -- Or Just Another Subsidy?...
The “FreedomCAR” (Cooperative Automotive Research), proposed by the Department of Energy (DoE), is a public-private partnership designed to develop hydrogen as the principal fuel in the United States. As in past (failed) ventures, the government is supposed to work with Ford, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler in researching and creating this technology. Rather than forcing American citizens to pay for this program for years to come, why not let private sector firms use their entrepreneurial talents to discover new ways to design and produce more fuel-efficient automobiles? When federal bureaucracy replaces American ingenuity, it can only result in a stagnant, stifled economy. Private businesses should be encouraged to flourish on their own; they should not be locked into a cooperative that answers to and relies on subsidies from the United States government.
Historically, the marriage of the public and private sectors has not fared well. For instance, the FreedomCAR program replaces the “Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles” (PNGV) program that was instituted in 1993 by the Clinton Administration and partnered with the nation’s auto manufacturers. The PNGV’s ultimate endeavor was to develop an automobile that could get 80 miles per gallon, but that goal was never accomplished. Worse, U.S. taxpayers had to dip into their wallets for $1.5 billion to pay for it. In an article for Today’s Engineer
, David Hawkins, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center, contended that there must be some accountability: “The United States can’t afford another research program that just gives billions of dollars in subsidies to the automobile industry with no commitment from them to actually produce advanced vehicles for consumers to buy.”
When private businesses are subsidized by or in partnership with the government they become too reliant on federal funds. We have all witnessed the mediocre results and resistance to innovation of our public schools even as they’ve increased their dependence on federal funds. It will be a tragic mistake for private businesses to follow suit.
Honda and Toyota have created and marketed hybrid gas/electric cars without a huge infusion of U.S. tax dollars to do it. While the Toyota Prius is slightly more expensive than the equivalent subcompact, it averages approximately 50 miles per gallon. Meanwhile, Rick Wagoner, G.M.’s chief executive, insists that FreedomCAR is different. He stated to the New York Times
that: “For this to go, it’s a team sport. We’re going to need the government in.”
Toyota can research, develop, and market a successful hybrid car on its own, but General Motors requires subsidies from the government?
President Bush is asking us to once again support a program that is doomed to fail. A Department of Energy press release dated January 9, 2002, states that “the public-private partnerships are the preferred approach to R&D,” but it noted that these cooperative efforts have to be “refocused.” That is an understatement. How can this “approach” possibly be “preferred” when it has been a proven path to accomplishing nothing? The press release goes on: “Aim at longer range goals with greater emphasis [on] highway vehicle contributions to energy and environmental concerns.” 
Longer range goals? The PNGV program began in 1993 and hoped to produce a prototype by 2004 and have the cars to market by 2008 – that’s not exactly short-range.
According to Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Nissan, the current price for a fuel cell car today is approximately $700,000.
The FreedomCAR program is, quite optimistically, claiming that it will be able to produce a viable alternative to petroleum by the year 2015. But how many billions of dollars will be spent during those years, and will the cooperative produce a practical and affordable alternative? More importantly, what if the program is a complete failure? The American people were not asked if they would like to finance this venture, but we are expected to accept the outcome without complaint.
An article in SiliconValley.com entitled “Bush Puts Money Behind Hydrogen-Powered Cars,” sheds light on several problems with the hydrogen technology that could lead to increased funding:
- “It now costs about 10 times as much to power a car by hydrogen as by gas.
- On-board storage for gaseous hydrogen is difficult and expensive.
- There is no infrastructure for refueling similar to today’s gas stations.
- Current hydrogen fuel cells are too big for many cars.
- There’s a safety concern, as evident in the 1937 explosion of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg dirigible in New Jersey.” 
According to Paul Georgia at the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Environmental Studies Program: “Hydrogen does not exist in geological reservoirs, it must be extracted from fossil-fuel feedstocks or water. The process of extracting hydrogen uses energy, which means that using hydrogen is less efficient than burning fossil fuels.”
When President Bush announced this new plan as part of his budget at the State of the Union address, it received vigorous support by Democrats and Republicans alike. President Bush, no doubt, is attempting to woo environmentalist voters by producing an emissions-and petroleum-free car, and if he wins them he will have to continue to appease them by throwing more money at their cause. A private business, on the other hand, has to please only its customers. In light of the current economic climate, Congress should be unshackling private business from the heavy chains of taxation and constricting handcuffs of unnecessary subsidies.