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Plugging Into the Electric Car Revolution


Come autumn, electric cars will make their long-discussed debut in California auto showrooms, giving many consumers their first real look at the vehicles advocates promise will revolutionize the auto industry and help clean up Los Angeles' smog.

But despite their environmental advantages, the cars will present their owners with challenges, especially when it comes to finding places out on the road to top off--or more appropriately, juice up--the battery.

A bonus for the early birds in the electric car revolution: hefty rebates on the car's price, low rates for electricity--and free "fill-ups" on the road.

Air quality officials, who have been pushing laws requiring greater use of electric vehicles, acknowledge that the key to success will be producing electric cars and trucks that combine affordability with convenience.

Recent surveys of drivers who tested electric vehicles found that 80% drove less than 50 miles per day, well within the 90-mile range of the current generation of electric vehicle batteries.

But other studies have shown that purchasers need the comfort of knowing they can recharge the power supply if they out-drive their battery range and need to "top off" to get home again.

There are now 400 public electric car-charging outlets in California--most of the 480 public outlets in the United States--according to the Electric Vehicle Assn. of the Americas. Although there is no precise count of the stations in the Los Angeles area, most of the state's stations are in Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, an association spokesman said.

Electric vehicle advocates hope to get communities and private firms to install 480-volt high-speed chargers, which can replenish a battery in five to 20 minutes, throughout California in parking lots at grocery stores, restaurants and shopping malls. In the Los Angeles area, the Air Quality Management District has its Quick Charge program, under which the AQMD will give more than $1 million to local communities to promote development of electric vehicle charging stations along heavily traveled routes.

Utilities such as Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power are encouraging the public to use electric vehicles by giving about a 50% discount from off-peak rates to those who charge their cars at home.

Today, 2,300 electric vehicles are in use throughout the United States, according to the electric vehicle association. About 600 of them are in California.

In 199O, the California Air Resources Board required that 2% of major automobile manufacturers' sales in the state be "zero emissions vehicles" by 1998, 5% by 2001 and 10% by 2003. So far, only electric vehicles qualify as "zero emission."

Under revised guidelines issued this year, auto manufacturers must still meet the goal of 10% "zero emissions" sales by 2003, but the 1998 and 2001 deadlines have been dropped.

Though no formal date has been set, General Motors expects to be first out of the gate with its car--dubbed the EV1--sometime in the fall. The GM car--a 137-horsepower, two-door, two-passenger coupe--will be sold in selected Saturn dealerships in California and Arizona.

The initial asking price is expected to be somewhere in the $35,000 range--but to make the cars more competitive with gasoline-fueled vehicles, the AQMD plans to offer the first 1,200 people who purchase or lease EVs in Southern California a $5,000-per-vehicle rebate.

The price does not, however, include installation of the requisite electric battery chargers and a separate electric meter in the buyer's garage or parking space.

Edison EV, the company contracted to install these devices, estimates consumers and businesses will pay an additional $2,000 for home chargers, or $45 a month to lease one for three years.

Using one of the home chargers during off-peak hours will cost the average electric car driver about $16 a month--prices vary with the utility--compared to an average of about $72 a month that Southern California drivers spend on gasoline, said Diane O. Wittenberg, president of Edison EV, a separate company spun off by Southern California Edison.

A directory of the public and private electric charging stations in California is put out by the Electric Vehicle Assn. of the Americas, 601 California St., Suite 502, San Francisco, CA 94108. E-mail: Web site http:/


Charging Up

Owners of electric vehicles will be able to recharge overnight at home, but public sites also will allow drivers to "top off" batteries quickly.

Conductive charger

Plug and cord system transfers power through metal- to- metal contacts.

Inductive charger

Transfers by magnectic induction- through plastic paddle- shape coupler.

Charging levels

* Level 1: Uses standard, grounded 120- volt, 12- amp, 3- prong outlet, available in most homes. Eight to 15 hours of full recharge.

* Level 2: Uses dedicated 240-volt, f40-amp outlet,similar to heavy- duty appliance circuts. Three to eight hours per charge.

* Level 3: High- powered, requires 480 volts. Can boost a battery pack's charge from 20% to 80% in 10 to 20 minutes.

Sources: Electric Vehicles Assn. of the Americas; Edison EV

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