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Correction to This Article
A Jan. 9 article that said General Motors Corp. hopes to be able to build 1 million hydrogen-powered vehicles by 2010 should have added that the company would do so only if there is enough demand for such cars.

Automakers Put Hydrogen Power On the Fast Track

By Greg Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page A01

The brakes are controlled by a computer, so the car can stop a full length shorter than most. Each rear wheel has its own motor and can turn by itself, which not only improves traction but also makes parallel parking a snap. And the only thing this car emits is water vapor.

But for all the exotic gizmos on the Sequel, an experimental hydrogen-powered car to be shown today by General Motors Corp., the biggest breakthrough is that it is designed to drive as far and accelerate as quickly as the cars in most driveways.

Vents on the GM Sequel, left, release heat generated by the car's fuel cells. Honda, meanwhile, has its own hydrogen-powered car, the FCX, destined for some municipal auto fleets this year. (American Honda Motor Co.)

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The Sequel uses fuel-cell technology that until now has not matched the overall performance of gasoline engines. GM is introducing the car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit as rival companies make similar announcements.

Passengers at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport will soon ride on buses with hydrogen-powered engines, Ford Motor Co. chief executive William Clay Ford Jr. is to announce today. Ford also is to announce plans to create three gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles for retail sale, and to rush the hybrid Mercury Mariner sport-utility vehicle to showrooms later this year -- a year ahead of schedule to capitalize on consumer interest in hybrids.

Honda is showing off a new-generation hydrogen-fuel-cell car called the FCX for the first time this week. While the car is not intended for retail sale, it will show up in municipal fleets in New York, California and elsewhere in the coming year.

After a century of dependence on oil-based fuel, the auto industry is finally giving consumers a serious look at a future with little or no gasoline power. The products showing up this week in Detroit have far more corporate support than recent electricity-powered vehicles, and are advanced beyond the demonstration vehicles shown by car companies over the last few years. The fleet of fuel-cell minivans that GM maintains in Washington, for example, has limited range and must be operated by company employees.

By contrast, Honda lets almost anyone drive its FCX. In a recent feature on the automotive research online site Edmunds.com, a reviewer described picking up the FCX from a valet-parking attendant.

Hydrogen is still years away from reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil. No one has yet figured out how to generate large amounts of hydrogen without causing as much pollution as internal-combustion engines now create, or how to pay for a nationwide distribution network. And the vehicles are prohibitively expensive; if GM's Sequel were for sale, it would cost as much as a warehouse full of Corvettes.

Still, auto industry executives say their business is on the verge of a fundamental change.

"It's a frenzy" to get out front with new technology, said Mary Ann Wright, director of such efforts at Ford. "What you're seeing is a groundswell, not really of industry pushing as much as everybody demanding that we really get serious about these solutions. . . . The market's telling us something -- they're ready for this kind of stuff. The public is aware that we can't continue to consume oil like we do."

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