VIEW FROM NEW YORK : Electric cars glide onto horizon

Clean-air regulators were having doubts when GM produced a bolt from the blue
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The Independent Online
For electric car enthusiasts it has been a confusing few weeks. First came the gloomy news from California that regulators were bending to pressure from Detroit and withdrawing a five-year-old provision demanding that, by 1988, at least 2 per cent of all cars offered for sale in the state by large manufacturers should be battery-powered.

But then, almost out of the blue, comes General Motors with the EV1, destined to become the first commercially available car designed from scratch to be electric-powered.

It has been five years since California's Air Resources Board announced the zero-emissions mandate, which seemed to guarantee that electric cars would come off the drawing boards and onto America's freeways by the end of the millennium whether the manufacturers liked it or not.

Itself driven by impending clear-air standards set by Washington, the board set three targets. By 1988, 2 per cent of cars sold would have to be electric, rising to 5 per cent by 2000 and 10 per cent by 2003.

The requirement would have meant that even by 1988, a minimum of 20,000 cars in the showrooms of California would have had batteries under their bonnets and not cylinders. Moreover, the move by California was mimicked in other parts of the country also bedevilled by smoggy air. New York and Massachussetts have adopted identical regulations.

The California Air Resources Board has a record of getting its way with the car industry, for instance in forcing the pace of the adoption of catalytic converters and lead-free petrol. The strictness of the federal anti-pollution standards requiring states to reduce dramatically the levels of fossil-fuel emissions has also provided a powerful incentive to stick to its guns against car industry protests. A dose of reality seems, however, to have had its effects on the regulators. In recent days, board officials have indicated that they will shortly withdraw the 2 per cent mandate for 1988 on the grounds that the technology for electric cars is not as advanced as had been hoped five years ago. But the 10 per cent sales target for zero-emission vehicless for 2003 will stay.

The retreat has angered environmentalists. Others argue that to force electric cars onto the market when they are not yet attractive or practical would be counter-productive.

The essential problem is one of power, or lack of it. With current lead- acid battery technology, owners would be lucky to get 80 miles out of their electric cars before gliding to a halt. The range can be shorter depending on conditions. In heavy traffic or cold weather the cars cannot make it that far. Moreover, battery-powered cars tend to lose oomph as the energy levels diminish.

And luxuries beloved by American consumers in particular - electric windows, heated seats and air conditioning - would drain the batteries further.

No wonder there was widespread surprise last week when General Motors, which was at the forefront of the lobbying campaign against California's emission-free mandate, pulled the wraps off the slinky-looking EV1. The two-seater is derived from the "Impact" electric saloon that GM first promised in 1990 to put into production but later abandoned.

The company said it was ready to begin production at a Lansing, Michigan, plant immediately and that the car would go on sale this year in California and Arizona with a price-tag in the mid-$30,000s.

GM dismissed suggestions of a contradiction between the its hostility to the California ZEV regulation and its unveiling of the EV1.

"We didn't think there were enough buyers out there to satisfy the mandate, but we believe there's an emerging market," the company said.

Now all eyes will be on the EV1 to see how it fares. Equipped with a familiar lead-acid battery, it has an advertised range of 90 miles. It also boasts power windows and full air-conditioning.

Its future may depend on how many consumers are sufficiently committed to petrol-free travel and want to make a public statement about it on the road.

Meanwhile, GM is working with others on new nickel metal hydride batteries that promise to deliver twice the range of cars fitted with lead-acid batteries. Last week also saw the opening of a first recharging station for electric cars.

In the meantime, all three states that have opted to try to regulate electric vehicles onto the road, California, New York and Massachussetts, still have in place the goal of 10 per cent of all cars offered for sale in 2003.

Whatever the success of the EV1, to most cynics this would seem like a wildly optimistic target. This is America, after all, the country that taught the rest of us how to guzzle gas.

David Usborne