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Federal Government Leaning Toward Hybrids : Rules: California's zero-emission rule has survived despite efforts to undermine it on a national level. Case in New York is seen as a bellwether.

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

August 08, 1993|DONALD W. NAUSS

Washington still may charge into the EV arena.

In February, President Clinton said he would support research into "clean car" technology--alternative-fuel vehicles, advanced batteries and fuel cells. The government reportedly could provide $1 billion for the efforts.

Federal officials appear more interested in developing hybrid-electric vehicles--equipped with both electric and internal-combustion engines--than in pure EVs. The automakers have been pushing California to relax its zero-emission standard to allow hybrids, which offer most of the emission advantages of electrics with the range of a conventional vehicle.

But so far, state regulators aren't interested.

"What hybrids do is allow them to meet the standard with a lot less effort," said Jannane Sharpless, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, "and probably not move the state-of-the-art of the battery much."

Some analysts speculate that the Big Three hope to use a clean-car partnership with the federal government to pressure California into delaying or backing away from its EV mandate.

But other efforts to undermine California in Washington thus far have failed. In December, the EPA cleared California to implement the zero-emission rules, despite opposition from automakers.

The car companies also have challenged the adoption of California emissions standards--including the zero-emissions requirement--by New York, a case they won in the lower courts. Now on appeal, the litigation is crucial, because other Northeastern states are likely to adopt the standards if New York wins.

That would greatly expand the demand for EVs.

It might seem that the automakers would welcome a bigger market, but they don't. If forced to produce more vehicles early, they say, they only will lose more money.

Said Roberta J. Nichols, Ford's manager of external planning and strategy for electric vehicles: "I have said to many people, in all sincerity, 'If we sell enough of them, we can go bankrupt.' "

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