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

Electric Cars: Coming Soon to a Show Room Near You (Probably)

Air Date: Week of

Andrew Caffrey of member station WBUR in Boston reports on the efforts by some states to get drivers out of conventional automobiles and into less-polluting electric cars. . . and on the confusing combination of enthusiasm and opposition to those efforts by Detroit.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

During the presidential campaign the Democrats called for hikes in fuel efficiency standards for cars, while the Republicans said that would put more American auto workers out of work in an industry already reeling from the economic crunch. But while Washington dithers on the issue, ten states are already forcing automakers to produce some cars that use no gas at all. Over the next few years a million electric cars will hit the roads of California and the Northeast. As Andrew Caffrey of member station WBUR in Boston reports, Detroit's biggest challenge in bringing electric cars to the showroom is no longer one of technology, but one of marketing. . . and mindset .

(Sound of latch)

BATSON: This is the empty space where the engine used to be. . . (fade under)

CAFFREY: For those of us who are mechanically challenged, the electric vehicle is seductively simple. There are no impenetrable blocks of metal, with the whatyamacallit pipes and hoses, and wires, wires, everywhere, and that strange sound that makes you feel silly when you imitate it for your mechanic. No funny noises; in fact, the electric engine is unnervingly quiet. There's not much of anything but air under the hood ob Bob Batson's Dodge pick-up, except the small black box at the bottom.

BATSON: Yeah, it's nine inches in diameter, and approximately 18 inches long, and that does the job of that large internal combustion engine that was in here before.

CAFFREY: Bob Batson is so sure electric engines will sell, he abandoned a consulting career and started a company in Massachusetts that converts the gas-guzzling, pollution-pumping pick-ups that are the mainstay of commercial vehicle fleets. Batson says it's much cheaper to convert a gas-powered vehicle than to buy a new electric model right off the assembly line.

BATSON: In fact, the vehicle we just delivered to Mobile Sales and Service yesterday was a diesel that had 120 thousand miles on it, and we converted it to electric and gave it back to them. So that's probably the ultimate in recycling.

CAFFREY: However, small shops like Batson's will not be able to meet the expected demand for electric cars. California has set a target that 2 percent of cars sold in the state by 1998 be electric powered. And many states in the Northeast are following California's lead. By the turn of the decade, more than a million electric vehicles are supposed to be on America's roads.

Now, the challenge for big automakers is to get consumers to buy electric cars. They're expensive, have limited range, and many consumers may still mistakenly liken them to under-powered golf carts. But there aren't any power problems with the electric car General Motors has been test marketing. The "Impact" is a sports car that goes zero to 60 in eight seconds. John Dabels is GM's marketing director for electric cars.

DABELS: Most people say, well, I've heard about this before. If they have a drive in a car, and we have some development cars, we have not had anybody get out of the car and say, this is less than I expected. In fact, most people get out and say, wow, that's a lot more than I ever thought I can get out of an electric vehicle.

(Cross-fade to sound of auto interior . . .)

TIERNEY: Here we go, I'm putting the key in, I'm turning the key (sound of click, buzzer) -- probably the buzzer for the seat belts, that just went off . . . (Fade under)

CAFFREY: Sue Tierney is the secretary of environmental affairs in Massachusetts. On a recent tour of downtown Boston, in a borrowed electric-powered Chevy Geo, Tierney bragged about the car's performance. She says automakers should easily be able to market them as smart second cars.

TIERNEY: This isn't the future, this is right now. And I love showing people. People are very interested to hear this is not a toy, and that this car is commercially available.

CAFFREY: Yet electric cars still have technological shortcomings that will probably discourage a run of customers at the local showroom. Most can only run around 100 miles or less on a single battery charge, although newer battery technology promises to increase that range. A more vexing problem is finding a safe and inexpensive way to dispose of used batteries. But specialists say major performance drawbacks should be minimized by the time most consumers get to kick the tires. And by then, consumers hopefully will have heard more about the cars' advantages. With so few parts, they are cheaper to maintain, and the difference in fuel costs is astounding. Depending on electricity prices, these cars average one to two cents a mile, compared to five or six cents for gasoline powered cars. And of course, the cars themselves do not emit any pollution, although some pollution is likely to be generated by the power plants that supply the cars' electricity.

General Motors has already picked out its target audience: yuppies -- whose purchasing decisions often influence others. They are often the first buyers of other new technology; for example, VCR's and computers, says Sheila Lynch, a marketing consultant who specializes in electric cars.

LYNCH: At first, they're considered odd, and then there's the few brave souls who love new toys who try them out and the public is dubious, but then they see the advantage of them and then there's a turning point and en masse the public becomes very accepting.

CAFFREY: The biggest hurdle, however, may be "sticker shock." General Motors, for example, plans to price its "Image" at upwards of $20,000. So the Federal Government is offering a number of financial inducements, including a tax credit for up to $4000 off the purchase price. And businesses which buy new or convert gas-powered vehicles are also eligible for tax deductions. Also, the Northeastern states are considering lower car registration fees for low pollution vehicles.

Yet these efforts to market electric cars are still the target of an intense political campaign, ironically by some of the very businesses which could profit from the sale of electric cars. General Motors, for example, has teamed up with oil companies to lobby against states' clean air programs and quotas for electric cars. Again, GM's John Dabels.

DABELS: Now I know there's some confusion or one could be confused between supporting electric vehicles which are the results of mandates in many cases, and then going in suggesting that we not have mandates. There appears to be a conflict. But I think the corporation has said we'd rather have consumers drive what the market needs rather than the government legislate it.

CAFFREY: But when lobbyists from General Motors show up at the doorstep of Massachusetts environmental official Sue Tierney, she laughs at their argument that a popular electric car is only a dream.

TIERNEY: I say this one I don't get , because this is real, it's out there on the road, it's down there in my parking space. You can do it.

CAFFREY: General Motors continues its paradoxical campaign on the electric car. The carmaker now brings a demo model to environmental trade shows, or outings with an ecological theme, rather than limiting its visibility to car shows. The car company reportedly plans a limited release of the "Impact" next year, and a much greater availability in model year 1995. For Living on Earth, this is Andrew Caffrey in Boston.



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