- The Washington Times - Friday, December 15, 2000

Think electric vehicles (EVs) are ready for prime time? Think again. The proof is apparent in California, where state bureaucrats last week came to their senses — at least halfway — and scaled back a complicated mandate forcing automakers to sell the battery-powered cars and trucks.

California has been on the forefront of the push to require car manufacturers to produce and sell EVs. So the decision to soften its stance is a strong indication the auto industry may be right when it says EVs are an idea whose market hasn't come yet.

The problem with EVs? They're expensive and impractical. EVs can cost $22,000 more than comparable conventional cars and their limited range of 100 miles or so between charges makes them good only for short commutes. Even with tax breaks to lower the cost to consumers, manufacturers that have tried to sell the battery-powered cars and trucks — GM with its EV1 two-seater, DaimlerChrysler with its Epic minivan and Ford with its Ranger pickup — have found few takers.

Until last week, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) was set to propose legislation requiring EVs to make up 4 percent of all vehicles delivered to California dealers in 2003. Another 6 percent of sales would have had to consist of gasoline/electric hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight. Under the revised proposals, only 2 percent of sales will be required to be EVs. CARB says that will reduce the number of EVs sold in the state to 4,650 from 9,300 in 2003. And hybrids or fuel-cell cars — the latter still in the experimental stage — will have to make up only another 2 percent of sales. Superclean-burning gasoline-powered cars will be required to account for a final 6 percent of deliveries.

Of course, failure to hit the overall 10 percent tally still will cost manufacturers a whopping $5,000 for every vehicle short of the target. But even with the rollback, automakers remain burdened with delivering record amounts of EVs to the state. DaimlerChrysler will revive its electric Epic minivan — put to pasture in 1999 due to lack of demand — solely as a result of the new rules. And GM, alone, likely will be forced to sell about 4,000 battery-powered cars — five times the number of EV1s it has delivered nationwide in the past three years combined.

Cleaning up California's air is critical. But there's better technology on the horizon than battery-powered electrics. Fuel cells, high-efficiency diesels and hybrids, if perfected, have a far better chance of drawing buyers in big numbers and improving air quality. But political pressure has California clinging to an outdated policy — no matter how impractical.

CARB politically doesn't want to back off the EV mandate and lose face, Greg Dana, vice president of environmental affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the auto industry's trade group, told the Los Angeles Times.

In the end, even the newly rolled back mandated EV effort may do nothing more than take some of the focus off more practical solutions to the world's environmental problems.

WARD'S AUTOMOTIVE REPORTS



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