Electric Cars Shift into Second Gear

Article excerpt

Battery-powered vehicles are gaining momentum. While electric cars have existed for decades, high cost and poor performance have kept them out of the market. Now regulators are giving them a push.

In 1990, California environmental officials told automakers that by 1998, 2 percent of their annual sales in the state must be composed of "zero-emission vehicles" completely free of exhaust pollution -- a standard that only electric cars can meet. The figure jumps to 5 percent in 2001 and to 10 percent in 2003. Lately, such regulations have made their way across the country. New York and Massachusetts have adopted California's standards, and a move to institute a similar program throughout the Northeast was approved early this year by a majority of the 12 states involved (as well as by the District of Columbia). The measure is now before the Environmental Protection Agency

The Clinton administration has shown a keen interest in electric cars. During a visit to California last year, the president endorsed the state's zero-emission rules. Moreover, federal funding for electric-car research has increased as part of Clinton's strategy to promote technologies that have military and civilian uses. The Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency is spending more than $60 million during a three-year period on research into electric vehicles or "hybrids" powered partly by electricity. Military planners say they hope to develop vehicles that, producing little noise or heat, would be difficult for enemies to detect.

The electric car may emerge as an important focus of a joint project of the administration and the Big Three automakers to make vehicles more fuel-efficient. However, advocates of electric cars fear that the project, which still is taking shape, will concentrate on improving the technology of gasoline-powered cars. That would be a setback for Vice President Al Gore, who played a large role in initiating the joint venture. In his book Earth in the Balance, written while he was a senator, Gore proposed as a "strategic goal" complete elimination of internal-combustion engines.

But electric cars still leave much to be desired. The batteries within today's models store only a fraction of the energy produced from a tankful of gasoline, restricting the vehicles to a range of 100 miles (and only about half of that in stop-and-go traffic or when headlights or other accessories are in use). And the batteries, which take hours to recharge, are so heavy that the cars cannot carry big loads and have difficulty climbing steep hills. Such inferior performance, moreover, may come with an exorbitant price tag. Some prototype models cost more than $100,000, although large-scale production would lower the costs. In addition, the price of recharging (and periodically replacing) the batteries may be higher than buying gas.

Technological improvements may solve such problems. But building a better battery has turned out to be stubbornly difficult, and decades of research have yielded only incremental progress. Electric-car advocates see government pressure as a way to speed their development. "Motor vehicles are inevitably going to be moving toward electric propulsion," says Daniel Sperling of the University of California at Davis, author of Future Drive: Electric Vehicles and Sustainable Transportation. "The only question is the timing of it." The zero-emission requirements, in Sperling's view, "reduce the uncertainty and essentially create a market."

But the auto industry is lobbying against the regulations, contending that electric cars will not be commercially viable in time to meet the deadlines. "We realize that the electric vehicle we can put on the road in 1998 is not the electric vehicle that the majority of consumers want to purchase" says Nicole Solomon, a spokeswoman from the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, which lobbies for the Big Three carmakers.

Even electric-car technology is not entirely clean, since power plants that generate electricity for the batteries emit pollution. …