Major carmakers plan to put dozens of fuel cell cars on US roads within a year as they test futuristic hydrogen-powered vehicles, which got a boost on Tuesday from the promise of $US575 million in US government and private funding.

According to Reuters, DaimlerChrysler said it is planning to put up to 37 fuel cell cars in US fleets as soon as this summer, while Ford plans to build up to 30 fuel cell cars late this year.

The news agency noted that the Department of Energy announced on Tuesday plans to invest $350 million in science and research projects into hydrogen and fuel cells, which could cut the US dependence on oil and offer a cleaner energy source.

Private investment will add another $225 million into research over the next five years, and help bring fuel cell vehicles closer to commercialisation in five to 10 years, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham reportedly told a news conference in Detroit.

“Clearly the impact in terms of reducing our dependence on foreign oil, as well as improving the environment, make this programme of the president’s a top priority,” Abraham said, according to Reuters, which added that hydrogen-powered fuel cells could sharply reduce, or even eliminate, many of the smog-forming emissions and greenhouse gases from the tailpipes of cars and trucks.

Reuters said the US government’s $375 million commitment is the first phase of $1.2 billion in spending that President Bush has promised to bring fuel cells closer to reality for consumers.

DaimlerChrysler reportedly said that pending final negotiations with the government on funding, it is ready to put from 20 to 37 fuel cell vehicles into fleets in Michigan and California by this summer.

The US fleet is part of 60 fuel cell cars that DaimlerChrysler plans to test around the world, Deborah Morrissett, DaimlerChrysler vice president of regulatory affairs and product development, told Reuters.

“We’re building these fleets because testing these fuel cells in every day conditions … is really critical to moving us towards commercialisation of the technology,” Gerhard Schmidt, vice president of research and advanced engineering for Ford, told the news agency.

Ford reportedly plans to begin building up to 30 of its Ford Focus FCV fuel cell vehicles in the fourth quarter this year, pending negotiations with the Department of Energy and various state and local authorities on funding. The vehicles will be placed in fleets in Michigan, California and Florida.

In conjunction, oil company BP plans to build a network of hydrogen fueling stations to support the Ford fuel cell cars, Reuters said.

Meanwhile, Toyota, Honda and Nissan Motor plan to put up to 65 fuel cell cars into a California fleet within five years, as part of the government initiative, the carmakers reportedly said on Tuesday, while BMW plans to assign up to 15 cars that burn hydrogen in an internal combustion engine in the project.

“A true hydrogen economy is a long way off,” Jim Press, chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales USA, which along with Honda has been the industry leader in selling cleaner gasoline-electric cars, told Reuters, adding: “This project can help us address some of the many challenges we face in bringing hydrogen-based transportation closer to reality.”