Clearing the Smog, Carefully

California is sticking to its goal of requiring the sale of zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs). But with its ruling last week, the state's Air Resources Board has again whittled down that goal. Some other states, primed to follow California's example - as well as officials in other countries - may be wondering if the antipollution leader is beating a retreat.

After all, the requirement was originally for 10 percent of new cars sold in the state to be zero-emissions. A couple of years ago it slid to 4 percent - and, as of last week's regulatory decision, to 2 percent by 2003.

But there are good reasons for the scaling back. The technological breakthroughs hoped for in the early 1990s, when California's plan was first conceived, haven't come. Battery-powered cars still get too few miles between charges - 150 at most - to satisfy many customers.

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But neither has technology stood still. Hybrid cars that combine electricity and gasoline get good mileage with very little pollution. New internal- combustion technology has greatly reduced smog-producing emissions from some gas-powered models.

California's plan now calls for 2 percent of new car sales by 2003 to be hybrids and 6 percent very low-emissions gasoline cars. Add in 2 percent ZEVs, and that's the state's new 10 percent target.

This is a credible blend of the practical and the ideal. But carmakers are still far from happy. They want no mandate to sell electric vehicles at all, because, they say, there's simply no market for them. With prices for electric models much higher than comparable gas-powered cars, as well as the mileage problem, this argument can't be dismissed as mere Detroit foot-dragging. If the state is serious about seeing more of these cars on the road, it'll have to consider incentives and maybe even subsidies. Eventually, increased production of electric cars could start to bring down prices.

The hybrids and low-emissions vehicles, meanwhile, should be no problem. Customers are lining up for Toyota's hybrid, the Prius, already on the market.

The carmakers also have pleaded that an electric-vehicle mandate makes no sense in a state now experiencing rolling blackouts. But that's specious. By the time electric vehicles are required to be on sellers' lots, new power-plant construction should have eliminated the electricity shortage.

California still is leading the charge toward transportation that doesn't blanket society in foul-smelling brown haze. It's to be commended. But the charge now looks a little more like a careful exploratory mission, and that may be just as well.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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