NEW YORK — IN pictures, it looks like a slow-moving, oversized golf cart. That was Dick Schweinberg's first reaction to the electric van he saw a year ago. As project manager for electric-vehicle commercialization at the giant Southern California Edison Company complex, in Rosemead, Calif., it's part of his job to test out such contraptions. Mr. Schweinberg, who has demonstrated the vehicle before scores of civic groups in Los Angeles and has ordered some for his utility this year, likes the soft engine sound. ``It's quiet, makes no noise, and when you turn the key, it doesn't go whoom.''
More than a decade after testing began, the pollution-free electric vehicle (EV) is making something of a comeback in Los Angeles, which has the worst smog problem in the nation.
Electric power authorities there hope to have at least 10,000 EVs, cars, trucks, and buses in use by 1995. And some local officials are calling for a ban on the use of gasoline in all cars by 2007.
``If we could replace even a small percentage of gasoline-powered vehicles used by motorists,'' says Marvin Braude, a Los Angeles City Council member and the main impetus behind the pollution-fighting plan, ``we'd be making an important contribution to the quality of our air.''
Studies have shown that some 2.7 million of the nation's light trucks and vans travel less than 60 miles a day, well within the capabilities of current EV technology. And they are usually parked at night, which would allow recharging during periods when electric rates are often cheaper.
Among Detroit's Big Three, Ford Motor Company has ventured farther in fuel-efficient technology than either General Motors or Chrysler. Ford's new EV, the battery-powered ETX-11 Aerostar, unveiled in Toronto late last year at the Ninth Annual International Electric Vehicle Symposium, is the talk of the industry for performance advances. General Electric was its partner in the seven-year, $20 million venture, which was sponsored by the US Department of Energy.
Melvin Chiogioji, director of DOE's office of transportation services, calls Ford's system ``light-years ahead of anything else on the market.''
But Bradford Bates, Ford's ETX program manager, says there would have to be a definite market for a certain number of electric vans before Ford would start building them. And even then, he says, they could not be ready for at least four years from the day the go-ahead was given.
The landscape is strewn with failures. Scores of automakers have been in and out of the EV market over the years. In Europe and Japan alone, these include Renault, Nissan, Fiat, Toyota, and Mazda. Says one industry source: ``They come and go like geese on a pond.''
Thus far, the main stumbling block has been the EV's propulsion system. For years, engineers have struggled to develop a lightweight system that is inexpensive, has high-power density, and a lifetime of at least five years.
The ETX-11 incorporates an advanced sodium-sulfur battery built by Powerplex Technologies Inc., a subsidiary of Magna International Inc., based in Toronto. Ford's technology has reduced its size, weight, and cost, while increasing reliability.
Meanwhile, competitors have drawn a steady bead on the market. The Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., has two EVs under development. One is based on the GM Vandura, the other on Chrysler's minivan. Both are scheduled for production, in limited quantities, sooner than Ford's.
In performance tests, though, Ford's has GM's beat. ETX gets 65 miles-per-hour maximum speed against GM's Electric G-Van's 60 m.p.h., will go 100 miles before needing to be recharged against G-Van's current range of 60 miles, and accelerates to 50 m.p.h. in less than 20 seconds vs. an acceleration rate to 30 m.p.h. in 12 to 13 seconds for the G-Van.