Q Dear Tom and Ray:

President Bush talked about a "hydrogen car" in his State of the Union address. Is this a realistic possibility during the Bush administration?

-- Jim

A RAY: Maybe during the Jenna Bush administration. The technology works, but people "in the know" say it's going to be at least 20 years before hydrogen-powered cars are viable on a large scale.

TOM: The main problems are: (1) the fuel-cell "stacks" are still incredibly expensive to build, (2) the range of the cars is insufficient and (3) there's no national infrastructure (like gas stations) to support hydrogen. So it's not going to happen anytime soon.

RAY: So, why is the president talking about hydrogen cars? In my humble opinion, he's creating a distraction.

TOM: I think so, too. You probably know that we now import boatloads of foreign oil every day. And almost everybody agrees that this is not a good thing (except for the countries that sell us the oil). So what do you do about it?

RAY: Well, you can try to find more oil here at home, by drilling in Alaska's forests, for instance. Or you can force people to use less oil. The president knows that both of these options are pretty unpopular. So he's doing what any good politician would do: changing the subject.

TOM: Here's another reason he might want to distract us from thoughts of fuel economy and foreign oil. With no pressure on American car companies to increase gas mileage, the Japanese have taken a significant lead in the most important new propulsion technology in decades: hybrid engines. Hybrid engines use battery power some of the time and gasoline power at other times, and they never have to be plugged in. They're a great way to increase mileage without sacrificing power or convenience. And you're going to see Americans adopting them in big numbers over the next five to 10 years.

RAY: Who makes the best-selling hybrid cars in America? Honda and Toyota. So, instead of urging America to make more fuel-efficient cars and cut down on foreign oil by raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, or urging U.S. manufacturers to catch up with the Japanese on hybrids -- which would make a huge difference right away -- the president's talk about hydrogen cars is, essentially, the old "Hey, everybody, look over there!"

TOM: We're still getting mail about emergency vehicles and the motorists who ignore their sirens.

RAY: A number of people have mentioned technological solutions.

Here in the suburbs of Minneapolis, we have small, white lights on every traffic signal that light up when emergency vehicles are nearby. I think these contraptions serve a twofold purpose, as the emergency vehicle gets an instant pass -- all green lights, all the way -- and the other vehicles see the white light and know to look around.

-- Dave

TOM: And a lot of responses centered on good old-fashioned law enforcement:

Why not have a camera installed in the grille of the emergency vehicle? These cameras seem to be everywhere, these days. The camera takes a picture of the back of the vehicle that does not yield, including the license plate. A few days later, the offender receives a citation in the mail that should be good for about $100. A couple of those should get the message through even the thickest skull. This approach seems to be having some success with red-light runners.

-- Mickey

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(c)2002 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

and Doug Berman