Commentary

Washington’s Out of Its Orbit

If history is any teacher, the federal government has a downright miserable record investing in the fields of energy and automotive technology. Proposals for a crash program for hydrogen-powered cars are liable to do just that: crash.

President Bush’s well-intentioned plan replaces President Clinton’s “Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles.” That multibillion-dollar fiasco, started in 1993, was designed to produce an 80-mile-per-gallon, five-passenger car. Simple physics demonstrates the impossibility of this, but politics beats science every time. Eight years later, the National Academy of Sciences pronounced it dead, killed by Isaac Newton.

There are many lessons to be learned from the Partnership. Foremost is that when government gets in the science and technology business, it is largely inefficient compared to the private sector. The Partnership funneled money to the Big Three automakers — Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler — to produce hybrid gas-electric vehicles. They didn’t put one hybrid on the road.

Two non-participants, Honda and Toyota, had prototypes by 1996, and you can buy their products today. My Honda Insight has averaged 70.9 miles to the gallon over 43,000 miles. It is the perfect two-seater long-range commuter; but it’s no family car.

Who needs the government in the hydrogen business? Honda already has some test vehicles powered by Ballard Power Systems fuel cells. In their ultimate incarnation, they can produce hydrogen power. Whether they ever will be economically viable has very little to do with what Washington might accomplish and a lot to do with what the private sector already is doing.

Why should the government invest our money when you, as an individual — if you are willing to take the risk — can do so today? I took that risk, buying 100 shares of Ballard at $ 101. Today, it’s beating around $ 10. Would you prefer the government to have lost 90% of your investment for you?

On the other hand, what if the technology ultimately works? The investors become fabulously wealthy. If the government were to make this investment, do you think it would refund the profits to taxpayers?

Gimme a break. Get the feds out of the car business and let investors take the risk. It’s the American Way.

Patrick Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute.