IN separate campaigns, the United States and Japanese governments are stepping on the gas in a race to develop a marketable electric car by 1998.That's the year when California law requires 2 percent of all new vehicles sold in the state by a manufacturer to be free of pollutants. By 2003 the state wants the sales level to rise to 10 percent. At present, electric cars, despite their drawbacks, are seen by most Japanese and American companies as the best way to meet the mandate. To help Detroit compete with Japan in a potentially huge market, the Republican White House shed its past distaste for a government industrial policy and has decided to support a $260 million program for a research consortium of the Big Three automakers in hopes that they can make the needed breakthrough for a better battery to run electric cars. The US move, announced by President Bush in September, sent a minor political tremor through Tokyo, which is not accustomed to the US adopting a Japanese tactic in which government helps private industry by targeting an emerging technology as a way to gain market dominance. "We're worried about Bush's idea that a joint research effort is needed to win against our competition," says Ryo Kamito, assistant director of the automobile division of Japan's ministry of international trade and industry (MITI). "A certain amount of competition would be good in such a developing technology, but we hope there is some exchange of ideas to avoid excessive competition. A few weeks after Bush's announcement, MITI unveiled its own plan, aiming to increase the number of electric cars on the roads of Japan to 200,000 by the year 2000. This is in addition to government-coordinated research, called the Moonlight project, already under way between various companies to develop new types of batteries. "MITI has to help the Japanese car companies prepare for the California deadline," says Hisashi Ishitani, a University of Tokyo professor and a member of the government-backed Electric Vehicle Council. "This is a very important time to prepare for EVs [electric vehicles]." The MITI plan projects that electric cars will be commercially viable in Japan only when sales reach 200,000, the minimum needed to justify two factories. But, still, the price tag for EVs would be 20 percent higher than that for a conventional car. To spur the market, the government plans to provide tax credits, public loans, and other supports. "We hope a public concern about the environment and a lot of marketing will encourage the public to pay a little more for EVs," says Mr. Kamito. The US project, known as the Advanced Battery Consortium, reflects a policy shift by the Bush administration toward government support of "pre-commercial" research in key technologies. But this contest between the two technological giants is also being fought on another battlefield. With its huge vehicle market, the US can favor home industries by selecting standards, such as battery types, charging stations, or voltage requirements. Japan, which itself has often used standard-setting to keep foreign firms on the defensive in its own market, is appealing to an international committee of the electric industry to set down guidelines for EVs. "We need an international standard to follow," says Kamito. "If Japan and the US would just exchange information on possible standards for electric vehicles, that would help us a lot." AT present, the world's leading makers of electric cars are heading in different directions in the choice of battery chemistry. Much of the recent improvements in EVs have come with rapid strides in solid-state electronics, motors, aerodynamics, and tires. "But 99 percent of the problem is the battery," says a Nissan research engineer, Masato Fukino. In anticipation of meeting the California requirement, General Motors (GM) unveiled its Impact electric car last year, making a crucial decision to produce a car that would slip easily into the existing auto structure. That meant going with the lead-acid battery, despite its low "energy density" compared with newer types and a long recharge time, sometimes up to eight hours. But if a lead battery has been discharged only 20 percent, a refill at a high-voltage station can take about 15 minutes, says James Hall, project engineer for GM electric vehicles. Japan is counting on buyers wanting to spend only six minutes for a full recharge, about the time now spent filling up a gas tank. That choice is pushing Japanese companies toward a nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) battery, although other types are not ruled out. The attraction of the Ni-Cd battery is its higher energy and faster recharging, but it also has a shorter life and a serious pollution problem in using cadmium, a toxic metal. "Having a short charge time is our solution to the problem of electric vehicles," says Nissan's Fukino. To improve the image of electric cars so that a market will exist in the future, MITI and Japan's largest public utility, Tokyo Electric Power Company, unveiled a high-performance electric car this year designed to match conventional cars in performance. The car, called the Iza, comes with power steering, power brakes, and power windows. It has a range of 548 kilometers (340 miles) at an average speed of 40 kilometers (25 miles) per hour. "We needed to show the limits of EVs," says Dr. Ishitani, who participated in the project. But in building the Iza, cost was not a factor. Four motors were used, one for each wheel, reducing energy loss by 15 percent. Nissan's latest electric car, called the FEV (Future Electric Vehicle), already meets all MITI's goals for the future, except price. But its range is only 250 kilometers at 40 kilometers an hour.