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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Stalling on Electric Cars

Air Date: Week of

By 1998, two percent of the cars on the roads of California, New York and Massachusetts are supposed to be electrically powered, but will they be? Opposition from the auto industry is mounting as the deadline approaches, and there are signs that the Massachusetts governor is waffling. Matt Binder reports on the shifting politics of electric car mandates.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In just a little more than 2 years many of us are supposed to be able to buy an electric car from a major car maker. California was the first state to order it 5 years ago as part of its campaign to fight its legendary smog. And since then, several other states in the congested Northeast have gone along. But GM, Ford, and Chrysler have fought hard against the electric vehicle rules. And recently, the political winds have begun shifting in their favor. Detroit's most recent victory has come in Massachusetts, where Governor William Weld is backing away from an electric car mandate; and New York may be next. But the most important battleground is California, the largest auto market in North America. As Matt Binder reports, Detroit is turning up the heat, but so far California Governor Pete Wilson and his regulators are refusing to wilt.

BINDER: Auto manufacturers are planning what they're calling a public education campaign to show residents of California and New York how the electric vehicle mandates will be a burden on car buyers. Jerry Espar is a spokesman for the American Automobile Manufacturing Association.

ESPAR: Right now, battery technology is not sufficient to allow manufacturers to produce a vehicle that consumers would want, or to do so at a cost that consumers could afford. And so in order to meet that market mandate, manufacturers will have to probably give away those vehicles or sell them at greatly below the cost to produce them. And in order to do that, then, they'll have to raise the cost of all the other vehicles that consumers want.

BINDER: Espar says the November elections showed that voters don't like this kind of government interference in the free market. He calls the electric vehicle regulations unfunded mandates. But Jerry Martin, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, the agency that originally adopted the mandate, says the Board members and their boss, Republican Governor and presidential candidate Pete Wilson, are all still fully behind the 1998 deadline. Part of the reason for Wilson's support, Martin says, is because Detroit's reluctance to develop mass-market electric vehicles has opened the door to a possible huge new electric automobile industry centered in California.

MARTIN: This is an industry that is growing in California, providing a lot of high-paying engineering and technical jobs for California, and no, the Board has not made any indication that they intend on changing that rule.

BINDER: Technical problems with batteries and other components have proven to be solvable according to Martin and those involved in the electric car industry. Mike Gage is the President of Calstart, a consortium of electric vehicle developers, electric utilities, and environmental groups.

GAGE: They've made all the same arguments that they're now making about electric cars about catalytic converters, about seat belts, and about air bags in cars: that they're too expensive, that they don't work, that they won't be able to sell cars in California if those things continue, and so on and so forth ad nauseam, for decades. And they've been wrong every time.

BINDER: The American Automobile Manufacturing Association says it has not yet decided the details of its upcoming multi-million-dollar ad campaign, and is currently conducting a search for a public relations firm to handle it. For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder in San Francisco.



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