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COLUMN ONE : Drivers, Plug In Your Engines : The race is on. The world's auto makers, jolted by state pollution mandates, are rushing to produce electric cars the average Californian will want to drive--before 1998.

REINVENTING THE CAR. California and the Electric Future. First of three parts

August 08, 1993|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Northern California, a power company is spending tens of millions of dollars to develop an electric car smaller than any subcompact--along with the facilities needed to recharge it.

In Tokyo, a natural food co-op is using electric trucks to deliver fresh produce to congested residential communities. Customers praise the vehicles for curbing noise and pollution.

In Germany, on a wind-swept Baltic island, villagers are putting thousands of test miles on a fleet of electric vehicles, cruising at speeds up to 74 m.p.h. between chargings.

Around the globe, electric vehicles are hitting the road in meaningful numbers for the first time in 75 years--the result of a revolutionary dictate from California bureaucrats who have ordered the world's auto makers to produce pollution-free cars before the turn of the century.

Undeterred by the skepticism of major car companies--which will have to spend billions in pursuit of California's dream--the state is sticking by rules it hopes will clean up the Southland's unhealthy air. The regulations also could help secure the nation's energy independence and spur economic growth by creating jobs.

Adopted three years ago by the state Air Resources Board, the standards require that by 1998, 2% of cars and trucks produced for sale here--as many as 40,000 vehicles--have zero emissions.

The requirement climbs to 5% of vehicles sold in 2001 and 10% in 2003. And the only way to meet it, given existing technology, is with battery-powered cars and trucks.

These "technology forcing" regulations are historic--and controversial. Never before has a government agency mandated production of a vehicle using a specific technology and set a strict deadline to accomplish the task.

As other states adopt California's rules--and as Europe and Japan move to develop electric cars to alleviate congestion and smog--the standards may remake the auto industry and alter our driving habits.

But the transformation won't come easily.

It pits strong forces against each other--the auto industry and oil companies on one hand; electric utilities, environmentalists and government regulators on the other. Notably, major auto makers in Detroit, Tokyo and Munich say California's deadline cannot be met--at least not with a viable car that anyone but a well-heeled environmentalist would be willing to buy.

The push for electric vehicles is complicated by the economic forces roiling the auto industry. U.S. auto makers are just recovering from a deep slump; foreign manufacturers are facing severe financial pressures because of recessions in their home markets.

The battle is being waged on several fronts--and often behind the scenes. The industry publicly touts each EV advance, while quietly lobbying to kill or delay the zero-emission regulations.

Beyond the political machinations, there are significant technological and economic obstacles. Current battery technology is deficient. EVs will cost more but be less functional than conventional cars.

"For the electric vehicle, the keys are technology, economics and politics," says David E. Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "There will be watershed battles in California over these issues."

The Background

From the 1890s--when they were common at exhibitions and fairs--through the first decade of the 20th Century, the word automobile meant electric cars to many people.

In 1900, the wealthy in New York were driven to the theater in their plush "electrics" at a time when the internal combustion engine was a sputtering, smoky, unreliable experiment. Women particularly favored electric cars because they were quiet and were not started with a hand crank. Clara Ford preferred her electric to her husband Henry's Model T.

But EVs soon gave way to their gasoline cousins, which were faster, cheaper and had greater range. Substantial interest in EVs did not revive until 40 years later, when smog concerns arose.

With the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979, industry and government geared up EV research. But when energy prices subsided, so did public interest.

In the mid-1980s, the curiosity of a few California officials was piqued by the sheer persistence of the car makers' EV research.

The most enduringly attractive quality of the electric car is that, for the life of the vehicle, it has no tailpipe emissions (although there are slight emissions at the power plant). Even the cleanest gas-fueled vehicles become dirtier as they age. Over a 100,000-mile life cycle, the ARB says an electric car is 200 times cleaner than the least-polluting conventional car.

Clearly, EVs could go far to clean up the state's air--particularly in Southern California, where more than half the pollution stems from vehicle exhaust. As part of a plan to reduce those emissions, the ARB in 1987 proposed requiring zero-emission vehicles.

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