CALIFORNIA'S Gov. Pete Wilson is trying to avoid another broadside to his fledgling presidential campaign - this time from the electric car.
The Republican hopeful, whose formal candidacy has been delayed by several problems, including throat surgery that has left him voiceless for longer than anticipated, has been under intense pressure from US automakers and oil companies to ease up on stiff state emission regulations.
The mandate - that 2 percent of new California cars be "zero-emission" by 1998 - is part of a plan in America's largest car market to meet federal clean-air standards by 2010.
Last month the pressure reached a boil when four Midwestern governors - in states key to the GOP presidential primary (Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio) - signed a letter urging Governor Wilson to block the state requirement in favor of a "50-state clean car."
An alternative, so-called "LEV" or low-emission vehicle, the governors argued, would help California meet air standards by improving the emissions of non-California cars traveling in the state as well as those relocating there.
"California's ZEV mandate puts Wilson in the middle of a very tough issue in a presidential campaign," says Tom Turrentine, a researcher at the University of California, Davis's Institute of Transportation Studies.
Wilson rejected the idea in a letter earlier this month, holding that the state had no legal choice but to meet federal air-quality standards. But at the same time he called for a new study of electric-car technology. That alarmed environmentalists, who think he may back off his pledges.
"If he ignores one side, he looks anti-industry, and if he ignores the other he looks anti-environment," Mr. Turrentine adds. "Whether he means to or not, his call for further study is a stalling tactic that takes the heat off for now."
Meanwhile, a public-relations offensive by carmakers to get Wilson to ease off the mandates has accelerated. The American Automobile Manufacturer's Association is challenging recent surveys showing that a majority of Californians believe electric cars are a "workable and practical means of reducing air pollution."
Wilson aides say that regardless of presidential primaries or auto-industry pressure, new studies of electric cars and other ZEVs are inevitable.
"Wilson's commitment for this state to meet compliance by 2010 is unwavering," says Paul Kranhold, spokesman for Wilson. "The question is: How do we get there? We can't just force technology onto the market regardless of its shortcomings. Consumers can lose confidence altogether, and you end up further behind than when you started."
Dan Pellisier, spokesman for the California Environmental Protection Agency, says the debate over meeting federal air standards has focused exclusively on electric vehicles, though other options exist.
"We've never been wedded to electric cars as a sole means to meet the standards," Mr. Pellessier says. "The point is, if the public doesn't accept those, we are still going to have to come up with something."
NOTING cars with solar and other kinds of fuel cells as well as gasoline/electric hybrids, Pellessier says one company, Engelhard Corporation in Iselin, N.J., may have the most amazing idea yet: a process that purifies air while you drive. At the cost of $500 to $1,000 per car, an application of a liquid catalyst to existing radiators could help destroy impurities under the hood such as carbon monoxide, converting it to carbon dioxide.
Because the system therefore "eats" some kinds of smog, the net effect of using the engine can help cars using the technology to fit within federal guidelines of zero emissions.