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Ford to Rush an Electric Car to Market by 1998 : Technology: Auto maker's top executive says it will meet regulatory deadlines, but doubts it will be developed enough to satisfy consumer needs.


DEARBORN, Mich. — Sending a warning to regulators in California and the Northeast, Ford Motor Co.'s top executive said Thursday that the auto maker will produce an electric vehicle by 1998--but doubts that consumers will buy it because it will have a high price and limited range.

Ford Chairman Harold A. (Red) Poling said that without improvements in battery technology, demand for electric vehicles would be minimal. The batteries in current use need to be recharged frequently and are expensive to replace.

"I am concerned about the cost of (an electric vehicle) and the demand for it," Poling told a press conference after the company's annual meeting. "We have to have a breakthrough with the battery."

Ford, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp. are negotiating to form a consortium for design, development, testing and possible manufacture of electric-vehicle components. A decision could come as early as next month.

Already, the Big Three auto makers--along with electric utilities and the Department of Energy--are cooperating on battery research. But it is uncertain if a better battery can be developed and marketed any time soon.

The Clinton Administration, meanwhile, is urging the industry to push forward on development of clean-car technology. The auto makers are seeking federal financial backing for their research efforts.

Much of the push for an electric vehicle comes from California emissions regulations. In 1998, 2% of all cars sold in California must be zero-emission vehicles. Several Northeast states have adopted California's standards.

Auto makers long have complained that California's requirements may be forcing an untested technology to market prematurely. California's demands, they argue, ultimately may hurt electric-vehicle development by disappointing consumers.

Indeed, the car manufacturers say that while California law mandates that electric vehicles be made available, there is no guarantee of buyers. Initially, most electric vehicles will be sold to fleets run by utilities and government agencies.

Motorists are likely to be put off by the limited range of distance--100 to 120 miles--of today's electric vehicles, car makers say. "They lose the flexibility and freedom that they buy cars for," Poling said, "and the cost is substantially more."

Ford is building 82 Ecostar electric vans and expects to deliver them to various utilities for testing this year. The vans, priced at $100,000 each, are powered by sodium-sulfur batteries.

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