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PERSPECTIVES ON ELECTRIC CARS : Mandates Will Add to Pollution . . . : Current technology is so expensive and inefficient that people will keep their old, polluting gas-guzzlers.

March 28, 1994|DAVID E. COLE and MICHAEL S. FLYNN | David E. Cole is director and Michael S. Flynn is associate director of the University of Michigan Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. and

Most analysts believe that electric vehicles (EVs) will someday have a significant presence in our lives. They also agree that time is in the distant future.

The distinction between the EV's potential and present reality is important. California has mandated that essentially 2%--roughly 40,000--of all cars sold here in 1998 must be EVs. Because of the lead time necessary to produce a new car, those 1998 cars will have today's battery technology.

Unfortunately, today's battery technology simply cannot support a practical and affordable EV. To be sure, there have been improvements as battery companies, domestic and foreign automakers and the U.S. government have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in research to develop new technology. But today's EV can be driven only 40 to 100 miles before it must be recharged. Some minor increases in mileage are possible over the next several years, but that range would be reduced if the driver uses heat, air-conditioning, the radio, lights or other electrical devices or is caught in the stop-and-go traffic typical of our cities. Moreover, the charging time for today's batteries is quite long and quick-charging systems are not yet reliable for mass use. Battery life also is a problem. EV applications require deep cycling, the concentrated use of a significant fraction of the charge, shortening the life of the batteries, necessitating replacement every few years and dramatically escalating the total life-cycle costs of the 1998 EV.

Andrew Card, president of the American Automobile Manufacturers' Assn., told the California Assembly Transportation Committee last month that today's EV is like having a car with a $15,000 gas tank with a capacity of three gallons that takes eight hours to fill and needs replacement every few years. Based on today's technology, we believe his statement is accurate.

Ironically, the California mandate may ultimately delay the wider use of EVs. Forcing this technology into the marketplace before there is any realistic chance of its widespread consumer acceptance may stiffen resistance to it when it becomes effective.

There is some risk that the mandated use of EVs also will hinder current efforts to clean our air. Those 1998 EVs could easily cost as much as $20,000 more than conventional cars, partially because they require more exotic body, chassis and heating-ventilation-air-conditioning systems to offset their battery limitations. Since such a price premium would almost certainly prevent sales from reaching the targeted level, this excess cost will be spread over all vehicles, and that is likely to reduce the sales of new conventional automobiles. Since new cars produce far lower levels of tailpipe pollutants than cars more than 10 years old, replacing older cars with newer vehicles is an effective and quick anti-smog strategy. Higher prices due to the EV mandate will surely slow that process.

California does not have to surrender its clean-air goals. But there are more effective means to those goals than EVs, including programs that increase the scrapping of old or poorly maintained cars, cleaner gasoline, inspection and maintenance programs and newer, less-polluting vehicles.

While EVs may work in replacing buses and delivery vehicles, where use patterns can accommodate their limitations, their use as passenger cars still faces too many obstacles for them to be a reasonable step to cleaner air.

We are confident, however, that someday technology will allow EVs to play a significant role in our urban-transportation network. A company making the necessary technical breakthroughs will become very successful indeed. If the ongoing cooperative research activities of the industry achieve the breakthrough, it will be competitively neutral and widely shared. Either of those outcomes is sufficient incentive to ensure that research into practical EVs will continue, even without mandate timetables.

In contrast, it seems clear that the realities of today's EV technology may make the California mandate one of the least effective approaches to reducing automotive pollution.

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