ELECTRIC cars may soon become a common - and state-mandated - sight on East Coast roads. The Environmental Protection Agency last week announced that unless automakers come up with a better air-quality plan, it will approve rigorous pollution controls sought by 12 Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, including a mandate for automakers to sell a 2 percent quota of electric cars by 1998.
The states - including Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia - as well as the District of Columbia, have strong incentive to act: The 1990 federal Clean Air Act says they must meet EPA air-quality standards by 1998 or risk losing federal funding for highway costs. This means hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs per year for each state.
The EPA will make a final decision Nov. 10, after receiving written comment from interested parties, including automakers. The latter are pushing a plan for states to require superclean gasoline, which they say can achieve EPA standards.
At a Sept. 13 press conference announcing the proposal, EPA administrator Carol Browner said, ``It is clear from the record that the emissions reductions represented by the [Northeast states'] petition, and more, are necessary in order to achieve clean, healthy air across the region. We are pleased to support the states' attempt to achieve such important reductions.'' Ms. Browner reaffirmed that each state had the right to mandate the sale of electric cars and added that alternative plans, such as the automakers' superclean gas proposal, would also be acceptable, if they meet or exceed the states' plan.
Arthur Davis, chairman of the Ozone Transport Commission (OTC), which represents the 12 states, gives the EPA announcement a thumbs-up. ``Under the [EPA-approved] program, the entire car fleet will continue to get cleaner and cleaner well into the next century.''
OTC spokesman Bruce Carhart adds: ``All you have to do is meet the emissions standards. Carmakers have the choice of how to meet those standards.''
The Big Three automakers - Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors - are less enthused. ``We know we have to do more to help states meet their goals,'' says Jeff Conley, spokesman for the American Automobile Manufacturing Association, which represents the Big Three. ``But how do you provide the cleanest air at the lowest price?'' Even when electric cars are mass-produced, Mr. Conley adds, they are likely to cost as much as $20,000 per vehicle more than conventional models. If automakers decide to level out this cost, all auto prices could rise $2,000 per vehicle. Foreign carmakers may also spread out the cost.
The push for better emissions standards got teeth in 1990, when California, the state with the nation's highest smog levels, offered a drastic plan to reduce its statewide auto emissions. The Golden State mandated the sale of cleaner gasoline and lower-emission car engines by 1998. It also required that at least 2 percent of all new cars sold be electric vehicles. Prodded on by the 1990 revision of the federal Clean Air Act, the OTC-states quickly moved to adopt California's standards.
Massachusetts and New York have already adopted laws that mandate the sale of electric cars, but a lawsuit by automakers have kept that legislation from taking effect.
Conley, the automakers' spokeman, notes that utility companies have been big supporters of electric cars, because it would guarantee a market for electricity.
Mary Kenkel, a spokeswoman for the Edison Electric Institute in Washington, says: ``We think we can put 40 million cars on the road without changing capacity, because the majority of battery recharging would be done in evening hours.''
The question for many observers is whether people will buy a more expensive car that drives shorter distances. Electric cars on the road today, most of which use lead-acid batteries, can travel only 40 to 60 miles before needing a recharge. Engineers say that range may be extended in the next decade to 300 miles per charge, if fly-wheel technology and more powerful batteries work as well as predicted.
``You can accelerate engineering by legislation, but you can't create a market,'' says Tom Northrup, an emissions expert for the Pittsburgh-based Society of Automotive Engineers. ``If people don't buy them, how are you going to sell them?''