RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The government has spent $2.5 billion dollars in just a few years to boost car battery technology. But batteries aren't the only way to propel an electric car. Another way is hydrogen.
As Michigan Radios Tracy Samilton reports, proponents are making a last-ditch effort to convince the Obama administration that fuel cell cars are ready for rush hour.
TRACY SAMILTON: Hondas fuel cell electric car, the FCX Clarity, can go about 240 miles on a tank of hydrogen fuel - about 60 miles to the gallon if you want to compare it to gasoline. The only emission from the car is water so pure you could drink it. The company has been building a limited number of these cars since 2005. Thats why Honda was so surprised when Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, claimed it would take four technological miracles to make fuel cell cars viable in the marketplace.
Mr. STEVEN ELLIS (Honda): Simply put, hes wrong on those points. He has bad advice. Automakers are not foolish. Were not going to invest in technology that we see as a dead end.
SAMILTON: Thats Hondas Steve Ellis. I meet him at southeast Michigans few hydrogen fueling stations, after four days of driving and thankfully, not wrecking one of Hondas fuel cell cars. The car costs $600 a month to lease. But if you add in all of the research and development costs, each one of these babies is probably worth tens of millions of dollars. But Ellis says the costs are coming down, from the hydrogen fuel, which is made from natural gas, to the cost of the fuel cells. And producing them in volume will really bring the cost down.
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Mr. ELLIS: Ten years ago, if we were looking under this hood, it would be like duct tape and bailing wires. So it was all an engineering exercise. This car, were handing the keys to customers and saying heres your car; see you in six months, nothing to see here folks.
SAMILTON: But the keys are being given only to a few people in southern California, where state subsidies helped build a cluster of hydrogen fueling stations. And even if Secretary Chu changes his mind about the miracles, the price tag remains a problem.
Oliver Hazimeh is with PRTM Consultants. He says battery electric cars like the Volt and the Leaf are getting cheaper, faster. Thats why batteries are getting the nod from the government.
Mr. OLIVER HAZIMEH (Director, PRTM Management Consultants, Inc.): By 2015, even five years from now, you will probably get a, you know, a Nissan Leaf-type vehicle on the size - on the battery side, probably for $25,000. That same vehicle, in the fuel cell configuration, will probably be still 45 to $50,000.
SAMILTON: But fuel cell proponents say thats not a fair competition. The government spent more on battery electrics in just the past two years than it did on fuel cells over the past decade.
James Warner is with the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association. He says cutting U.S. funding sends the wrong message to car companies like Honda, GM, Toyota, Daimler and Hyundai that are developing fuel cell cars.
Mr. JAMES WARNER (Director of policy, Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association): By all accounts they are ready to commercialize these vehicles in 2015. It depends where. What country.
SAMILTON: And Warner has a bigger worry than less federal funding. Under a continuing budget resolution, Secretary Chu has no mandate to spend anything at all on fuel cell technology.
Mr. WARNER: The Secretary, if he so chose, could end these programs today.
SAMILTON: But a statement from Secretary Chu suggests hes likely to stick with President Obamas proposed budget, which cuts research and development by about half, but eliminates funding for the commercialization of fuel cell cars. That means it could take even longer for people who dont live in Southern California to get a hydrogen fuel cell car to drive.
For NPR News, Im Tracy Samilton, in Ann Arbor.