Electric cars charge into slow lane

YOU can taste and almost see the pallid air in front of your face - another day of smog in ``sunny'' California.

It's a perfect day to go looking for a new car. But not the type of vehicle you're used to driving. Here, lined up outside the Disneyland Hotel, are a dozen prototype electric vehicles, or EVs, and if environmentalists and California regulators are correct, they could soon be taking over the highways.

``I'd someday like my kid not to be able to see the air he breathes,'' sighs Tim Considine, a contributing editor of ElectricCar magazine based in Los Angeles (see story at right). He's one of more than 1,000 people who have come from all over the world to hear the latest news about electric vehicles and to drive the latest prototypes.

Call it technology in the fast lane. A few years ago, battery-run cars were considered little more than a goofy idea, the province of crackpots and tree-huggers. But today, they're the province of some of the best minds in the auto industry. And for good reason. It's three years and counting until California's Air Resources Board (CARB) puts into place the toughest exhaust-emissions standards in the world.

The centerpiece of the act is known as the ``Zero-Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) Mandate.'' Electric vehicles, which have no tailpipe, are, for the moment, the only practical means to meet that mandate.

Today, there are barely 2,000 electric vehicles on United States highways and perhaps 5,000 worldwide, according to industry trade groups. But soon, the General Motors Corporation alone will be selling at least 5,000 a year in California.

Starting in 1998, the ZEV mandate will require that the seven largest carmakers make at least 2 percent of the vehicles they sell in California battery-powered. In 2000, that jumps to 5 percent. Then, in 2003, all carmakers will be covered under the statute, which increases to 10 percent electric vehicles.

No one wants to get locked out of the lucrative California motor-vehicle market, which accounts for roughly 10 percent of total US passenger-car and light-truck sales. And there is mounting pressure elsewhere on the auto industry. A coalition of 12 northeastern states and the District of Columbia have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to enact the ``California Low Emission Vehicle'' program, minus its electric-vehicle mandate, in their region. But the EPA is working on a national plan that would allow northeastern states to opt for the ZEV mandate.

So manufacturers are rushing to get their first EVs ready for market. The question is: Will customers actually buy them?

To test the waters, General Motors has launched a program it calls the GM prEView. Over the next two years, it will offer motorists in Los Angeles, and a dozen other cities around the country, the chance to drive one of 50 teardrop-shaped EVs, dubbed the Impact, for two to four weeks at a time. So far, ``the biggest complaint we've gotten is when we tell people they've got to give them back,'' says prEView director Frank Schweibold.

But GM is not convinced there's enough of a market for the Impact to meet its California mandate, and so it is looking for an alternative answer. One approach is the ``glider.'' The Ford Motor Company is already negotiating an agreement with an EV converter, U.S. ElectriCar of Sebastopol, Calif., to rip the engine out of a gas-powered car and stuff in an electric motor. GM and the Chrysler Corporation may take the same approach.

The problem with EVs ``comes down to the battery,'' complains John Wallace, director of EV research at Ford and head of the US Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC), a joint Big Three research project. ``Today's batteries simply don't deliver the type of range and performance American motorists expect.''

Not unless they expect less than 100 miles range and up to eight hours charging time for batteries needing replacement every two to three years. That's all you'll get from the lead-acid batteries used in most of today's electric-vehicle prototypes, such as the Impact.

Some breakthroughs may be on the way, though. USABC has been doling out millions of dollars to help fund development of longer-range batteries. GM plans to put one of those, the nickel-metal-hydride cell, into pilot production in 1996.

A NiMH cell has about twice the ``energy density'' of Impact's lead-acid battery pack. That translates into range of as far as 200 miles. Using special equipment, the NiMH can be recharged to 60 percent of its capacity in just 15 minutes. And it appears the new battery will last the life of the car.

During the 12th biannual EV symposium here in Anaheim, a range of other battery concepts has been put on display. Zinc-air, lithium polymer, advanced lead-acid all promise to extend EV mobility, but they are too expensive now.

Some of the names are familiar, like GM and Ford. But there are plenty of other new players. Firms like Solectria Corporation of Wilmington, Mass., which has come up with its own Impact-like EV, the four-seat Sunrise. And Solectria hopes to raise money by doing its own gliders for the Big Three.

``Will General Motors, Ford and Chrysler be in the electric-vehicle business 20 to 25 years from now? Will they still be in business? Without dynamic and massive change, the automobile companies could well join the ranks of industrial dinosaurs,'' cautions Sheldon Weinig, chairman of the Sony USA subsidiary, Materials Research Corporation.

Not everyone is convinced the electric vehicle really will make it in the tough US new-car market. If anything, ``the fastest way to kill the EV is to put it on the market before it is [technically] ready, warns Chrysler's top engineer, Francois Castaing.

But regulators in California don't appear likely to back down, and new EV mandates are likely to be put in place all over the world.

So, ready or not, EVs are on the way.

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