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Auto Industry Zero-Emissions Claim Rejected

August 09, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite opposition from the auto industry, state air-quality regulators should not back down on imposition of their revolutionary zero-emissions vehicle mandate, a new California Air Resources Board staff report suggests.

The 174-page report, issued Tuesday, makes no formal recommendation to the air board but does reject auto makers' insistence that there is no market for the electric vehicles that now constitute the ZEV fleet. And it says "continuity of ZEV production is critical" to the success of the program.

The board, whose members serve at the pleasure of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, a supporter of clean-air initiatives, will consider the future of the so-called ZEV mandate at its quarterly meeting Sept. 7 in Sacramento.

The staff report, based on input from several expert research panels and public testimony collected during two lengthy public hearings in Sacramento and Southern California this summer, says that despite higher initial costs and lack of public awareness, there is a market for thousands of zero-emissions vehicles in the state.

To date, the only vehicles that qualify for that status are battery-powered electric cars and trucks such as General Motors Corp.'s EV1 sports coupe and Ford Motor Co.'s electric Ranger mini-pickup.

And because they are essentially hand-built, with expensive prototype battery packs, the typical electric vehicle would cost as much as $20,000 more than a comparable gasoline-powered car in the early years of the program, the report concedes. But though auto makers say this supports their claim that electrics cost too much, the report suggests that if they made and aggressively marketed more of them, the costs would go down as volume increases. The staff also urges creation of a system of state and local tax and other incentives to help reduce electric vehicle costs.

The ZEV mandate, first approved in 1990 and modified several times since then, requires major auto makers to certify as zero-emissions vehicles a small percentage of the passenger cars and trucks they sell in California beginning with the 2003 model year.

There are a number of scenarios under which car makers can reduce the number of ZEVs they would have to field, but at minimum the program would see the number of ZEVs on California highways jump from about 2,200 today to about 22,000 by the 2004 model year.

Steve Douglas, Sacramento-based representative of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group representing most major auto makers, said Tuesday that the report shows that the ZEV mandate "is asking people to pay [as much as] $20,000 more for a vehicle with about one-third the range of a conventional car or truck, a three- to five-hour recharging time and a limited public infrastructure for recharging."

But supporters of the mandate say the auto industry ignores the long-term benefits of promoting ZEVs and increasing the number in use.

"This is not about now and the market as it currently stands," said Roland Hwang, Berkeley-based transportation program director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"It is about the long term, where costs go down and emission benefits will go up," Hwang said. "We don't know, right now, how to clean up our air, so we have to go after every ton of emissions that it is cost-effective to remove. And it is hard to see how in California we can meet our clean-air standards without eliminating tailpipe emissions."

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