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Automakers Find Bush Speech Encouraging

Associated Press Writer Ken Thomas reported Automakers were encouraged by President Bush’s push for the further development of hybrids, increased ethanol production and hydrogen vehicles.

Bush, in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, pressed Congress to advance the development of batteries in hybrid and hydrogen-powered vehicles, saying the nation must “change how we power our automobiles.” He also promoted ethanol production from sources other than corn, including wood chips, stalks and grass.

In the weeks leading up to the speech, many automakers featured hybrid and flexible fuel technology at shows, while discussing hydrogen fuel cells and engines running on hydrogen power. They said Bush’s push for more research into those areas complemented their work to develop vehicles not dependent upon foreign oil.

“For there to be a solution to the energy problem, there is going to be more than one answer and it certainly takes government working together with industry to make that happen,” said Sue Cischke, Ford Motor Co.’s vice president of environmental and safety engineering.

About 5 million alternative-fuel vehicles are on the road, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Automakers are spending millions of dollars researching hydrogen fuel cells, a technology that could transform the industry.

Gas-electric hybrids are a growing segment but still only make up about 1.1 percent of the U.S. market. The Toyota Prius has seized more than half of this market.

Researchers are trying to make hybrid systems more affordable and the government has tried to help. Federal tax credits let consumers save up to $3,150 per hybrid based on the vehicle’s gas mileage, although benefit phases out when automakers sell 60,000 vehicles.

Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Texas, and other communities are pressing the auto industry to develop plug-in hybrids. They combine hybrid technology with large batteries that can be plugged into a standard wall socket.

Automakers say they are studying the concept, but say it has a long road to viability.

“Until we get through the drawbacks of conventional battery vehicles we think hybrids are the way to go,” said Toyota spokeswoman Martha Voss.

Spurred by federal incentives, several automakers have pushed vehicles capable of running on ethanol. The vehicles have the flexibility of using gasoline and ethanol blends of up to 85 percent ethanol, or E85.

Ford is expected to produce 250,000 ethanol-capable vehicles this year; General Motors Corp. says it has about 1.5 million ethanol-compatible vehicles on the road.

“We think ethanol is probably one of the single-most available opportunities to diversify our fuel sources,” said GM spokesman Chris Preuss. He said the automaker now plans to move up its launch of a pro-ethanol “Live Green Go Yellow” television campaign for release during the Super Bowl.

Still, ethanol is still confined to Midwest fueling stations and ethanol producers only generate a fraction of the amount of fuel consumed annually in cars.

David Cole, chairman of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research, said Bush’s remarks were in synch with the work of automakers and he expects a greater thrust on vehicles powered by biofuels.

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.

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