The battle over California's zero-emissions vehicle mandate moves to Southern California later this month with a two-day hearing many see as a referendum on the fate of the electric vehicle.
The session, which will begin May 31 at the South Coast Air Quality Management District headquarters in Diamond Bar, is expected to draw a crowd of speakers split between fans and foes of battery-powered electric cars and trucks--the only zero-emissions vehicles, or ZEVs, acknowledged by state regulators today.
On the printed agenda are topics as esoteric as storage-battery technology and as emotional as lung disease.
But the real issue in the final public workshop scheduled before the zero-emissions rules take effect in September 2002 is the auto industry's bid to further weaken a mandate that has already been altered and delayed twice since it was adopted by the California Air Resources Board in 1990.
The auto industry last week asked Gov. Gray Davis to add $75 million to next year's state budget to fund subsidies for ZEVs, gasoline-electric hybrids and other vehicles that provide at least "super-ultra-low emissions"--a sign that the manufacturers believe they will continue to face some requirement that they provide EVs for sale in California.
But at the same time, the industry has hired big-gun lobbyists such as former assemblyman and Sacramento Mayor Phil Isenberg and presidential image-maker Joseph R. Cerrell to push their give-us-more-time message to the Legislature.
General Motors Corp., for example, says that although it spent more than $500 million in developing the EV1--an electric sports car with a devoted group of users--a broad market never developed.
"There was greater-than-anticipated consumer resistance" to a two-seat vehicle with a range of 60 to 120 miles per charge and a monthly lease price of $399 to $499, said Ken Stewart, GM's brand manager for advanced-technology vehicles.
The auto makers say it is unfair for the state to force them to spend huge sums on vehicles they cannot profitably market.
"We are against mandates on general principle," said DaimlerChrysler spokeswoman Ann Smith. "If there were a market for these [electric cars], then there would be no need to have a mandate."
Opponents scoff at such claims, pointing out that the auto makers have routinely opposed government efforts to make them improve safety standards and emissions on the grounds that such requirements are too costly or unnecessary.
"The auto industry has always opposed mandates and cried destruction," said V. John White, the Sierra Club's lobbyist in Sacramento. "But it has always been able to produce a lot more than it said it could."
Industry claims that electric vehicle production is prohibitively costly ignore the basic economic principle of spreading costs over volume, ZEV proponents argue.
The auto makers typically spend $1 billion or more to develop a new model and then amortize the costs by aggressively marketing and selling thousands of units, the clean-car advocates note.
But GM built only about 400 EV1s. And even the car's most devoted fans say the company did little to market it. Honda Motor Co. also designed and built a four-seat electric vehicle, the EV Plus, that was marketed to the public. But it built only about 325 of them before declaring last year that it would stop because it did not see a public demand.
Most other electric vehicles were produced in equally small numbers and were marketed only to fleet users such as utility companies and government agencies.
"Electric cars have not been launched in this state--they have only been demonstrated," said Edward Kjaer, manager of Southern California Edison's electric transportation division.
The utility, which is required by the federal Energy Policy Act to convert its own fleet to zero-emissions vehicles in the next few years, says it needs 125 to 150 electric cars and trucks next year but cannot get them because the auto makers say they won't build any more.
"This is not about technology or customer demand, because their marketing efforts were pretty pitiful," the Sierra Club's White said. "It comes down to a matter of money. The cost of batteries is something the car guys don't want to have to tackle, so they don't want to have to build more electric vehicles."
The average cost of the storage batteries in current EVs is about $10,000 per car. That is down from $90,000 just five years ago, and some battery companies are saying that with enough volume to lower per-unit production cost, it would drop to about $3,500--a figure that starts being competitive with the cost of a conventional internal-combustion engine.
For its part, the air board won't discuss the upcoming hearing or the possible fate of the ZEV mandate, saying that such discussion is premature.