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Electric Cars Will Get the Green Light

Environment: State air board upholds its 'ZEV mandate' beginning with 2003 models. The only question now is how many vehicles the industry will be required to supply.

October 18, 2000|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the dismay of the auto industry and the joy of environmental groups, the electric car is officially part of the Golden State's future.

The California Air Resources Board made that clear last month in unanimously upholding the so-called ZEV mandate requiring car makers to provide a substantial number of zero-emissions vehicles, or ZEVs, for sale in the state beginning with the 2003 model year.

State lawmakers stepped up to the plate with a direct grant program--signed into law at the end of September by Gov. Gray Davis--that will provide consumers up to $3,000 a year for three years to offset electric vehicle lease or purchase costs. Final rules aren't expected to be in place until the end of the year. Additional subsidies of up to $5,000 for a three-year lease already are available in the Los Angeles Basin and several other smog-afflicted regions of the state through regional air-quality agencies.

The new state program is capped, though, at $18 million, even as some auto makers say the electric vehicle industry needs at least $1 billion in state and federal price subsidies in the next few years to help offset the high cost of manufacturing the cars for California.

And still as murky as the air in L.A. during a Stage 3 smog alert is the bottom line: just how many ZEVs the industry will be required to produce for California.

The numbers still are being debated and a final decision won't be made at least until the air board meets on the mandate once again. Several major auto makers have told the board's staff that they will not be able to meet the mandate requirements as now established.

An initial staff assessment of options open to the air board is available on the agency's Web site (http://www.arb.ca.gov/msprog/zevprog) and a public workshop on possible revisions has been scheduled for Oct. 25 at the board's regional office in El Monte.

A final report and recommendations for changes to the mandate, based on industry and public input, will be presented to the board for action Jan. 25.

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Enthusiasts of battery-powered electric vehicles--at present the only technology capable of meeting ZEV requirements--declared victory after the board's Sept. 7 vote to uphold the mandate in the face of auto maker insistence that it be scrapped. They believe the board will hold firm and that only minor changes are coming.

"The debate has shifted from 'Will there be a mandate?' to 'What it will look like?' " said Roland Hwang, transportation analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council and former transportation programs director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"But there will be a substantial number of full-function electric vehicles in California. . . . The environmental community did hear from [the air board] that what's going on now is a tweaking of the program, not a wholesale rewriting--a tuneup, not an overhaul. The air board was very clear on that."

But Art Garner, a spokesman for the U.S. arm of Honda Motor Co., said that what the auto makers heard in the same September meeting was that the board understands that the industry has considerable concerns about the cost of building and selling EVs, the manner in which the mandate would be implemented and the degree of flexibility that it would allow.

"That's what we're doing now," he said. "We are working with the [air board] staff to try to make sure they are aware of our feelings on those issues."

Those feelings aren't especially favorable.

Churning out battery-powered EVs, which are virtually hand-built, "is a pretty ugly business proposition," said Kelly Brown, director of vehicle environmental engineering for Ford Motor Co., which makes an electric-powered compact pickup, electric bicycles and two small two-seat electric cars--one freeway-legal but limited to a 60-mile range and the other restricted to streets with maximum speed limits of 35 mph.

The Dearborn, Mich.-based auto maker will try to comply with the mandate, Brown said, but is not committing itself to meeting the minimum ZEV requirement for 2003--almost 7,500 vehicles for Ford before a variety of environmental credits come into play--unless the required numbers are reduced significantly. Otherwise, he said, "we may fall short."

General Motors Corp. also sees little likelihood of meeting the mandate's present requirement that it have about 4,100 ZEVs available for sale in California for the 2003 model year.

"We have not announced any products" that would meet the mandate, said West Coast spokesman Donn Walker, adding that it is unlikely there will be any new production of the company's sleek two-seat EV1 because the electric sports coupe won't meet new federal auto safety standards that take effect for 2003. "We would have to design a whole new car."

Added Jeff Kuhlman, GM's technology division spokesman: "We are looking at various product alternatives and would like to move forward. But we are not going to do so until we understand what the final rules will be."

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