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Chrysler Zooms Into Electric History (Sort of) : Automobiles: The company plans to be the first major auto maker to begin production of an electric vehicle. But competitors disagree.


DETROIT — The race for bragging rights as the first major auto firm in modern times to build electric vehicles for sale in this country gets serious today.

Chrysler Corp.'s celebrity pitchman and chairman, Lee A. Iacocca, is expected to announce plans to begin factory production in December of the first federally certified electric vehicle to be sold in the United States.

How many? "At least 50," Iacocca will tell a breakfast audience from one of his typically high-visibility platforms, the kickoff of the New York Auto Show.

But don't get in line to buy a TE-Van: As many as 300 electrified minivans will go to electric utilities across the country at $100,000 a copy. Besides, just how much history Chrysler is writing is not immediately clear.

"A few hundred vehicles at $100,000 apiece? That ain't production in my book," says John Wallace, director of electric vehicle programs at Ford Motor Co.

Wallace says Chrysler is hyping what is just a demonstration fleet. A colleague of Wallace's was willing to give Chrysler this much: "They might be the first auto company that begins with the letter 'C' to build electric vehicles."

The public-relations jostling underscores the stakes in both competitiveness and prestige as U.S. and foreign auto makers scramble to meet California's 1998 "zero pollution" deadline for auto production and similar mandates in New York and Massachusetts.

Ford, meanwhile, is bringing in "at least 80" vans from its Halewood, England, plant to Dearborn, Mich., in November or December. They will be electrified by Ford engineers and sold to electric utilities in Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago, much as Chrysler is doing with its minivans.

But wait: Ford's Europe-designed van won't meet all the U.S. safety standards, and ours will, says Chrysler. Chrysler also gets points for using the relatively advanced nickel-iron battery, concedes Ford.

"It's all arm-waving as far as we're concerned," says Jim Janasik, transportation project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, which was involved in the Ford and Chrysler ventures.

Though an estimated 4,000 electrically powered vehicles are already on Southern California freeways, nearly all were converted by back yard tinkerers or the half-dozen custom auto producers who do it for a living.

But the mandate that 2% of the cars sold in California in 1998 have "zero emissions"--rising to 10%, or more than 100,000, in 2003--has touched off an international race among all the world's major auto makers.

The Ford and Chrysler vans now nearing production are adaptations of existing vehicles and are believed to be forerunners of the electric vehicles they hope to build in larger volumes later this decade.

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