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Electric Car Questions Center on Batteries, Consumer Appeal

May 13, 1994

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Carmakers once balked at seatbelts. Then they balked at airbags. Now they’re saying they can’t get the kind of electric cars to market by 1998 that Californians would want to drive.

The biggest obstacle to meeting California’s tough, new clean air standards is the car’s battery, American and Japanese auto executives contend.

Most drivers won’t settle for 100 miles on a charge and owners aren’t ready to give up some of the battery-draining features they’ve gotten accustomed to in gasoline-powered models, like power steering, power brakes, heat and air conditioning, the executives said Thursday.

But the staff of the California Air Resources Board, along with environmentalists and some businessmen, said promising battery technology is on the drawing board. The push provided by California’s toughest-in-the- nation regulations could bring it to market, they said.

″Tough goals with incentives in the end do drive technological innovation,″ said Malcolm Currie, former chairman of Hughes Aircraft and now co-chairman of Project California, a coalition of industry, academia, labor and government. ″An electric vehicle revolution clearly is being born.″

The board’s staff has found that by 1998, some technologies could offer drivers 200 miles on a charge. Consumers driving battery-powered models wouldn’t have to worry about smog checks and routine maintenance like oil changes and tuneups.

However, questions about servicing and recharging the batteries remain, it acknowledged.

The board’s two-day hearing, which concludes today, offered carmakers a last chance to make a case for delays in getting cars to market. But one board member, Lynne Edgerton, said there was little chance the panel would alter the timetable.

The board’s staff has recommended that the panel stick with a tough schedule adopted in 1990. It requires 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.

Detroit’s Big Three say the battery-powered technology is still too limited and too expensive to appeal to drivers.

Peter Pestillo, Ford Motor Co.’s director of corporate relations, said it would take a ″battery breakthrough″ in development to come up with a viable electric car.

″The only viable technology for 1998 is lead acid battery. It’s range will not satisfy customers,″ said Toyota Motor Corp. representative Jonathan Haines.

Others cited the lack of any network of recharging stations for electric cars.

″The challenge to service could be greater than the challenge to build,″ said Sam Leonard, director of automotive emissions control at General Motors Corp., which this summer will begin customer drive tests of its PreView electric car in four California cities.

Leonard cited price as a deterrent to consumers. He said battery-powered cars would have to be priced at $35,000 for GM to get a return on its investment. Environmentalists counter that some European and Japanese makers already are offering compact electric models at low prices.

Before the meeting opened, environmentalists gathered outside the hearing to urge that the board not give in to carmakers.

″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.

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.

California has the nation’s poorest air quality and is home to six of the seven American cities with the worst ozone problems.

California’s clean air laws also impact other states. New York and Massachusetts have adopted California’s rules. Another 10 states are considering them, said Jerry Martin, a spokesman for the Air Resources Board.

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