DETROIT (AP) Tossing aside a Clinton administration program to develop high-mileage vehicles, the Bush administration yesterday announced a new pact with the major automakers that focuses on accelerating the development of non-polluting vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

The new program, called Freedom Cooperative Automotive Research, also will focus on developing a hydrogen refueling infrastructure, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said.

“The long-term results of this cooperative effort will be cars and trucks that are more efficient, cheaper to operate, pollution-free and competitive in the showroom,” Abraham said during the announcement at Cobo Hall, site of the North American International Auto Show.

Freedom CAR replaces the Partnership for a New Generation Vehicle program started by the Clinton Administration to develop a vehicle that could attain 80 miles per gallon fuel efficiency.

“PNGV wasn”t cost-effective, and it wasn”t moving a competitive automobile to the showroom,” Abraham said.

General Motors Corp. chairman Jack Smith said that PNGV focused attention and money on trying to develop more fuel efficient vehicles, but the world”s No. 1 automaker has turned its attention and research dollars to fuel cells.

“As far as we”re concerned this is our highest priority in R&ampD investment and has been for some time,” Smith said.

A fuel cell produces energy from a chemical reaction when hydrogen is combined with oxygen. The only byproduct is water. In recent years, the cost of fuel cells has dropped sharply. Hydrogen can be produced from natural gas aboard vehicles or pure hydrogen can be used, requiring development of a new supply infrastructure.

DaimlerChrysler AG plans to market a fuel cell-powered bus by the end of this year and some passenger cars by 2004, Chrysler Group president and CEO Dieter Zetsche said during the ceremony.

Ford Motor Co. also plans a “limited build” of fuel cell vehicles by 2004, said Tom Boddie, vice president, global core engineering.

The automakers have targeted 2010 as the earliest any sort of mass market versions of fuel cell vehicles could be available, but one expert said this new partnership could accelerate the timetable.

“I think the biggest thing is, this will let the auto industry do what they do best which is developing technology,” said Thaddeus Malesh, director, alternative power technologies at the market research firm, J.D. Power and Associates.

An executive at Ballard Power Systems Corp., which supplies fuel cells for DaimlerChrysler and Ford, said the partnership will help overcome one of the major obstacles to a so-called “hydrogen society.”

“To me the most significant thing about this is the emphasis on the hydrogen infrastructure,” said vice president Ross Witschonke.

“This is a real opportunity to put a lot of investment into the storage, the production the delivery of hydrogen,” he said.

Environmental groups, however, scoffed at the new program, saying it is not so much aimed at developing emission-free fuel cells as it is at holding off legislation to increase fuel economy standards.

“What is needed is regulatory guidance to raise efficiency across the board in cars and light trucks,” said John DiCicco, a senior fellow with Environmental Defense.

“It”s an enormous waste of taxpayer money,” said Ann Mesnikoff, of the Sierra Club.

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