Ready to Buy a Zev?

THERE may be an electric car in your future, but it's likely to be farther down the road. California, which has been the engine of low-emissions automotive technology in the US, has shifted into a lower gear.

It's moving to lift its mandate that 2 percent of the cars sold there be zero-emission vehicles (called ''zevs'') by 1998. That sent chills as far as the snow-bound Northeast, where New York and Massachusetts had vowed to follow California's lead.

The reasons for California's slowdown on electric vehicles are pragmatic. Vehicle prices are steep. And battery technology still lags far behind the needs of consumers. The driving range between recharges is short, about 100 miles.

General Motors' recent announcement of its first mass-produced electric car, the two-seater EV1, doesn't alter those shortcomings. The car's range will be 70-90 miles, and it'll be sold, at some $35,000 a pop, only in four cities: Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Tucson, Ariz.

But GM's move tempers criticism that no one is ready to market an electric car. The biggest carmaker is going ahead despite California's mandate slowdown - perhaps, as its executives indicate, because electric vehicles are the future of transportation not only in the US but in Europe (with its much higher gasoline prices). And what about those massively populated, quickly industrializing parts of the world (China and India) where the automotive culture is still in its infancy?

The greatest impetus behind electric transportation is environmental. But that picture is mixed. A switch to electric propulsion would still leave heavy fossil-fuel burning, since a majority of world electricity generation still depends on such fuels. And the currently dominant form of battery, lead acid, presents significant production and disposal problems.

Another type of battery, zinc-metal-hydride, may be less problematic and permits a driving range beyond 200 miles. But its cost would drive vehicle prices over $100,000. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells, which produce electricity (and water as a byproduct) are an option, but cost and the lack of an infrastructure to supply the needed fuel are hurdles.

Yet these technologies, and others, are in mid-evolution. Prices will gradually come down. Those who have backed California's mandates see them as a means of speeding the evolution. (And that stimulus is not totally removed, since California's target of 10 percent ''zev'' sales by 2003 remains.) Opponents in the car and oil industries argue that it's foolish to try to mandate market choices.

What's needed is a merger of government's encouragement and industry's market acumen. GM is to be commended for taking the lead. Low- and zero-emission vehicles will be needed - for cleaner air, and to reduce dependence on oil, whose supply may be squeezed in the coming century.

GM is going ahead with its electric car, despite California's mandate slowdown.

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