Federal Highway System

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Bush's decision to use that speech to ask for $1.2 billion in federal funds to support fuel-cell and hydrogen research was a boost for the emerging technology, which converts hydrogen into electric current while releasing steam as a byproduct.

A few days later, Bush said he wants to see that the first car driven by "a child born today" is powered by hydrogen and pollution free.

By investing federal dollars into the development of fuel cells, the president is seeking to neutralize environmentalists who favor progressively tighter federal fuel-efficiency standards and pollution controls on vehicles, which most automakers reject as costly burdens and counterproductive. He's also answering those who think the U.S. is too dependent on sometimes-hostile oil-producing nations.

"The auto industry is using the promise of future fuel cells as a shield against using existing technology to dramatically cut our oil dependence, and pollution, today," said Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program.

"This technology is sitting on the shelf while Detroit dithers. Honda and Toyota are producing (fuel-efficient, gas-electric) hybrid vehicles today, the Big Three are not. Honda has stated that it is using the electric motor of its hybrid as the basis for the fuel-cell cars, which it is beginning to produce."

Though working prototypes show spectacular advances in fuel-cell and vehicle design, it's difficult to overestimate the cost and problems of turning what now are lab experiments into practical, affordable and mass-produced technology such as today's internal combustion engine.

"I hope we'll have our first commercial fuel cell vehicle by the end of the decade," said Byron McCormick, executive director of fuel-cell activities for General Motors Corp. "When the president describes the vision, people take it seriously and starting moving it."

In December, Toyota Motor Corp. delivered two experimental fuel-cell vehicles...