- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2001

Electric cars are a lot like perpetual motion machines and the 100-mpg carburetor the reality never quite catches up with the theory. Despite decades of work, electric cars remain crippled by impossibly short ranges, limited practicality and high cost. They're still not ready for prime time as alternatives to conventional cars and may never be.

Hence, it's good news that California air quality regulators are revisiting the "zero emissions vehicle" (ZEV) mandates passed almost a decade ago that would have effectively required the mass production of unsellable electric cars which are the only vehicles that currently meet the rigid and arbitrary "zero emissions" standard. What California does is apt to be emulated by other states, such as New York and Massachusetts, which have similar mandates on the books as well. So the outcome of this debate is critical.

The original California mandates are basically production quotas that would have required each automaker doing business in California to produce and offer for sale a quantity of "zero emissions" electric cars equivalent to 4 percent of overall sales each year, beginning with the 2003 model year. This translates into some 22,000 electric vehicles annually.

But the language of the mandate specified only that these "zero emissions" electric cars be built and offered for sale. No one could force consumers to actually purchase them.

And therein lies the dilemma that ultimately changed the minds of California regulators. With current "state of the art" electric vehicles such as the two-seat GM EV1 offering 70-100 mile ranges at the outer limits before needing to be recharged for several hours and costing $30,000 and up per example few buyers are likely to pony up.

"Our real mission here is to clean up vehicles and the air, and we can't do that with vehicles on paper," said Jerry Martin of the California Air Resources Board (CARB). "We need to get vehicles on the road," he said. He understands that whether the electric car holds the promise of cleaning up the air is beside the point if few people actually drive them.

The board's proposed revisions to the mandates would lower to 2 percent the total number of vehicles that would have to meet the arbitrary "zero emissions" standard. But CARB needs to go further and scrap the poorly conceived, outdated mandates in their entirety. They are as dated as a Duran Duran album.

As recently as the 1980s, gasoline engines were still relatively dirty producing a substantial amount of the harmful emissions that contribute to smog and ozone formation. Electric vehicles, which produce no tailpipe emissions at all, were seen as a major potential solution to California's apparently intractable air quality problems.

But today's gasoline-burning engines are incredibly clean and efficient thanks to advances in engine management systems and emissions controls. Approximately 98 percent of their combustion byproducts are harmless carbon dioxide and water vapor.

The allegedly "zero emissions" electric car (which runs on electricity generated quite frequently by coal-fired utility plants) has, at best, a roughly 2 percent advantage over a typical 2001 model year passenger car at the tailpipe. California air quality (and air quality nationwide) has seen marked improvement as older, less efficient vehicles are retired by attrition and replaced by the current crop of extremely clean new cars.

Meanwhile, Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) and Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV) gasoline-powered cars are entering the marketplace. These cars and trucks are within a few tenths of a percentage of being "zero emissions" vehicles themselves functionally indistinguishable from "zero-emissions" electric cars.

All 2001 Lexus passenger cars (and some sport utility vehicles, or SUVs, such as the RX300) meet the LEV standard as do many other 2001 model year cars and trucks offered for sale by other automakers.

Then there are "hybrids" such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, both of which went on sale this year. These vehicles use two separate but complementary propulsion systems usually a small, highly efficient gas or diesel engine teamed with an electric motor to achieve even lower overall emissions than a LEV or ULEV vehicle, and extremely high fuel economy. Because the diesel/gas engine back-up is used part-time, or as an adjunct power source, a hybrid is nearly emissions free.

LEVS, ULEVS and hybrids are superior in every respect to electric cars as transportation and arguably as harmless to the environment as electric cars. Yet ironically, though hybrids, ULEVS and LEVs are both commercially attractive and also extremely "clean" they did not meet the rigid language of the original California "zero emissions" mandate and were considered as "dirty" as any old rust-bucket from the '60s, at least from a regulatory standpoint.

This served no one's interests and did nothing to address California's air quality issues. CARB's belated but nonetheless welcome admission that electric cars have not just failed their mission, but may not even be the best way to clean up the air, is therefore welcome news to anyone who values actual results and not pie-in-the sky promises.

Eric Peters is an editorial writer for The Washington Times and a syndicated automotive columnist.


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