LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Executives from the Big Three automakers say it may be impossible to build an electric car that consumers would want by California’s 1998 deadline.
Carmakers said Thursday they were skeptical that batteries will be strong enough to give a car the range, speed and amenities that California drivers want.
″We must have a battery breakthrough,″ said Peter Pestillo, Ford’s director of corporate relations. ″The ultimate test ... has to be consumer acceptance.″
Pestillo and other auto company executives testified as the California Air Resources Board began its review of clean air rules that would be the nation’s toughest, requiring the production of zero-emission vehicles by 1998.
For automakers, who need three years to develop their new models, the meeting offered a last chance to campaign for delays in getting electric cars to market. But one board member said there was little chance the panel would alter the timetable.
The Air Resources Board staff has recommended that the panel stick with a tough schedule adopted in 1990 requring that 2 percent of the cars offered for sale in the state in 1998 be electric. That requirement rises to 5 percent in 2002 and 10 percent by 2003. It applies to companies selling 35,000 or more cars a year in the state.
″We’re not here to decide whether to change course. The staff says we’re on track,″ said board member Lynne Edgerton.
Automakers said the major obstacles were inadequate batteries and the lack of a network of recharging stations for motorists.
″The challenge to service could be greater than the challenge to build,″ said Sam Leonard, director of automotive emissions control at General Motors Corp.
He also said the cars would have to be priced at $35,000 in order for GM to get a return on its investment. ″To meet a 2 percent mandate, an electric vehicle would have to be one of our most popular vehicles,″ Leonard said.
Pestillo, Leonard and Gordon Allardyce, manager of environmental regulatory planning for Chrysler, all were skeptical that researchers could produce a battery strong enough to power a car adequately and still provide such amenities as air conditioning and power steering.
Allardyce was the only Big Three representative to actually ask for the requirement for electric vehicles to be eliminated.
Robert Stempel, a former GM chairman who now heads battery manufacturer Ovonics, said, ″The key to me is going to be the retail customer. It’s going to take a real car ... It’s got to be one that puts a smile on your face, one that’s fun to drive, fast and affordable.″
Before the meeting opened, environmentalists gathered outside to urge the board not to give in to automakers.
″If California stumbles on the clean air mandates, the development of clean air vehicles around the world could come to a grinding halt,″ said Peter Hackes, an organizer for the ″Drive Clean ’94″ campaign.
California has the nation’s poorest air quality and is home to six of the seven American cities with the worst ozone problems.
Earlier in the week, citizens’ groups said oil companies and automakers had spent at least $24 million since 1991 to influence state government, hinder clean-air laws and fight electric cars.
Studies have shown that for the state’s polluted air to become healthful, motor vehicle emissions must be reduced.
The Board staff reported that several electric battery technologies look promising and meet the carmakers’ requirements for power, acceleration and longevity. It found that by 1998, the cars could drive 200 miles on a charge and consumers driving battery-powered models wouldn’t have to worry about smog checks and routine maintenance like oil changes and tuneups.
The tough standards have been strongly supported by Jacqueline Schafer, chairwoman of the Air Resources Board. She’s a former official of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The clean air laws, which will change what Californians drive to work, have implications for other states, as well. New York and Massachusetts have adopted California clean air rules. Another 10 states are considering them, said Jerry Martin, a spokesman for the Air Resources Board.