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Clean fuel technology takes stage as Bush speaks to nation

David Shepardson From Detroit News| January 24,2007

The chorus of voices calling on automakers to put their environmental initiatives into high gear will grow even louder tonight when President Bush delivers his annual State of the Union address.

Bush is expected to repeat his call for reforming fuel economy measures for passenger cars, which haven't been raised since 1985. He is also expected to call for more money for advanced battery research, needed to power fuel cells and other alternative powertrains, and raise the target for renewable fuel use to as much as 60 billion gallons of ethanol by 2030 -- up from 5 billion in 2006.

His speech will come just hours after leading automakers, including DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group and Ford Motor Co., use the Washington auto show to make major announcements about what they are doing to make their vehicles cleaner and more fuel-efficient.

The spotlight on the greening of the auto industry comes as automakers are racing to show they are serious about improving fuel economy and reducing vehicle emissions, which have been linked to global warming, amid worries about the instability of foreign sources of oil and the dangers of climate change.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said Monday she hopes Bush will move away from fuel economy mandates, which she called "an old strategy" for increasing efficiency. "I hope he's going to embrace the research and development necessary to give a boost to the auto industry."

Initiatives automakers are expected to outline today at the Washington auto show include:

DaimlerChrysler AG Chairman Dieter Zetsche is expected to announce the German-American automaker will meet strict new U.S. diesel emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles that take effect in 2010 nearly three years ahead of time, people familiar with the speech said.

Zetsche and Tom LaSorda, CEO of Chrysler Group, are expected to announce that Chrysler will next month begin selling heavy-duty Dodge Ram pickups in all 50 states that meet the new standards.

Chrysler also will outline plans to introduce a diesel version of its Jeep Grand Cherokee early this year. And in 2009, Chrysler will begin building turbo-diesel light-duty Ram pickups that will comply with the stricter emissions standards, as well as tough requirements imposed by California and four other states.

Ford will unveil a plug-in hybrid hydrogen fuel cell vehicle today, part of an $88 million joint research project with the Energy Department.

Volkwsagen AG will announce it is using some Bluetec technology in its new diesel 2008 Jetta. In November, DaimlerChrysler, a leader in diesel technology, said it was joining forces with Volkswagen and its Audi unit to market its clean-diesel Bluetec technology.

Meanwhile, the drumbeat for action on fuel efficiency continues to grow.

On Monday, a group of businesses and leading environmental organizations called on the federal government to quickly enact legislation to achieve significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

In his auto show speech, Zetsche will call on automakers and government officials to work together to improve the fuel efficiency of the nation's vehicle fleet and urge more cooperation amid rising rhetoric on climate change, people familiar with the speech said.

With its plug-in hybrid, Ford may be trying to grab some of the spotlight away from General Motors Corp., which unveiled its plug-in electric hybrid Chevrolet Volt this month at the Detroit auto show.

Ford's Flexible Series Hybrid Edge, a zero-emission vehicle, could get more than 41 miles per gallon and travel 25 miles on electricity alone.

One big advantage is the vehicle requires a much smaller fuel cell, which reduces its cost by half and makes it much lighter than traditional fuel cell vehicles, said Mujeeb Ijaz, Ford's manager for fuel cell vehicle engineering.

A future model to be built this summer will be even lighter and more fuel-efficient, he said.

"This vehicle offers Ford the ultimate in flexibility in researching advanced propulsion technology," said Gerhard Schmidt, Ford's vice president of research and advanced engineering. "We could take the fuel cell power system out and replace it with a downsized diesel, gasoline engine or any other powertrain connected to a small electric generator to make electricity like the fuel cell does now."

DaimlerChrysler is also working on plug-in hybrids and is expanding its plug-in U.S. test fleet to more than 20 Dodge Sprinter vans.

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