BY the end of the century, Electric Vehicles, or EVs, are likely to become a frequent sight - especially along the Pacific Coast.
Starting in 1998, California will require all but the smallest automakers to meet tough new clean-air standards. Two percent of the vehicles each manufacturer sells in the state will not be permitted to emit toxic exhausts. For the near future, the only practical ``Zero-Emission Vehicle'' - or ZEV - is the EV.
``We're mandating a completely new industry to come into being,'' says John Wallace, project development manager for Ford Motor Company's EV program. The industry is one that Ford and the other automakers know relatively little about.
While the clean-air standards will not go into effect for four years, that time is barely an eye blink for automakers who typically take 40 months or more to go from concept to production. And that is for a conventional car: pioneering such radically new technology could take much longer.
Asked when General Motors Corporation will have to lock its EV program in place, chief executive officer John Smith grumbles, ``We must get to it within the next few months.''
The automakers cannot afford to make many mistakes. Shortly before his recent retirement, Harold Poling, chairman of Ford, wrote a letter to California Gov. Pete Wilson estimating that Ford would spend $2 billion to launch its EV program.
Before they make any final decisions, the automakers are trying to answer some crucial questions:
r What type of infrastructure must be put in place to sell, service, charge, and maintain EVs?
r What is the best battery and motor technology available?
r And perhaps most important, will consumers be willing to buy EVs, which are likely to cost more but provide fewer advantages than today's gasoline-powered vehicles?
Last week Ford began delivering the first of 81 hand-built EV prototypes, dubbed the Ecostar. The Ecostar is a modified version of a commercial minivan sold in Europe, and can carry two passengers and a payload weighing up to 1,000 pounds.
It is powered by a sodium-sulfur battery expected to deliver 100 miles to 130 miles in range. With a special 220-volt adaptor, it will take six hours to recharge. With a standard 110-volt outlet, recharging could take 24 hours.
In the weeks to come, the rest of the Ecostar prototypes will be distributed across the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe. Most will go to government and commercial customers, including Southern California Edison in Los Angeles and Detroit Edison. They will pay $100,000 each on a 30-month lease - only a fraction of the $250,000 Ford says each Ecostar costs to build.
Ford is not the only automaker rolling out an EV test fleet. Chrysler Corporation has already put 50 of its Te-vans on the road, and early next year General Motors Corp. will roll out 50 of its two-seat Impact coupes for extended, real-world testing.
``We've never run anything like this before,'' says Sean McNamara, GM's manager of EV market planning. ``We're hoping to have a substantial database.''
With the help of 14 utility companies, GM plans to lend the vehicles for several weeks at a time to 1,000 US motorists over the next two years. To solicit volunteers for the $32 million project, utility bills will list a toll-free number motorists can call. GM expects as many as 100,000 inquiries.
But ``I don't think customers will be real happy with early EVs,'' cautions Ray Geddes. Mr. Geddes is chairman of Unique Mobility, a Golden, Colo., firm that is working to develop more efficient motors and energy-storage systems for EVs. The company has already participated in an urban bus program and is working with auto manufacturers such as BMW.
The EV's biggest problem is its battery. The sodium-sulfur cell on the Ecostar, for example, is more powerful than most but can deliver only one-half the range a typical car can get on a tank of gas. And even in high-volume production, it will likely cost upward of $15,000 - or about three times more to operate per mile than a motorist would pay for gasoline. And batteries would have to be replaced every two years or so.
The industry is spending millions to research newer, more powerful batteries, Mr. Wallace of Ford says. ``But I don't expect any major breakthroughs,'' he says. ``It's more like football. You get three yards at a time. We'll have to slog it out.''
But will customers be willing to do the slogging? The pilot programs should show whether there will be enough demand to meet the ZEV's 2 percent sales mandate. If not, automakers may have to spend millions more on incentives to put electric vehicles in the hands of motorists who do not really want them.