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

Electric Cars: What's Watt?

Air Date: Week of

Is electric car technology ready for a mass market? Steve Curwood speaks with John Dunlop, the chairman of the California Air Resources Board about California's recent flip-flop on electric auto target dates.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's been stop and go on the road to bringing electric cars to US consumers recently. General Motors announced this month that it'll start selling an electric vehicle in smoggy Los Angeles and 3 other southwestern cities later this year. GM says its EV-1 will travel 90 miles on a full charge, have a top speed of 80 miles an hour, and price tag in the mid-30s. Chrysler and Ford have also unveiled electric vehicles of their own. So it may seem curious that at the same time California has declared it is dropping its regulation that major carmakers produce some 20,000 electric vehicles starting in 1998. It was that mandate that had prodded Detroit and Tokyo to put their electric car R&D operations into high gear in the first place, but now California says that the technology hasn't come far enough, fast enough, or become cheap enough to attract more than a few avid buyers. The state does plan to keep a mandate to sell 10% electric vehicles by the year 2003. The decision came despite the finding of a state technical review panel that some commercially viable battery technologies should be available by the year 2000, and critics have accused the state of selling out to automakers and the oil industry. But John Dunlop, who chairs the California Air Resources Board, says the board made a practical decision in the face of tremendous lobbying pressure.

DUNLOP: Well I can tell you that I've been chairman of this board for a year and there hasn't been an issue that has gotten as much attention as the zero emission vehicle.

CURWOOD: I bet not.

DUNLOP: On both sides you have the environmental community who has been very supportive of this program. You've had obviously the automotive industry have had a lot to say about technology and production capacity and we've done a technology evaluation and a market assessment, and that is what's driven the action of the board. Not politics, not lobbying, not campaigns.

CURWOOD: Now, your board's decision has been criticized as a step back in terms of implementing antipollution and safety standards. Is that a fair description?

DUNLOP: I believe it's an unfair characterization. We -- see, the point we've been trying to make in California is this. We cannot achieve the Federal and state clean air standards without zero emission vehicles. We need them to be wildly successful in California, make no mistake about that. So for anybody to suggest that we don't want these vehicles as soon as we can get them is just misstating the issue. We need them and want them to work.

CURWOOD: So tell me why the wait until 2003 to set the sales quotas?

DUNLOP: Well, first of all, the battery technology, we're talking about a mid-term battery that would be available in the year 2000 and 2001 time frame. That is not the battery, for example, that will allow a ZEV, a zero-emission vehicle, to compete, range-wise, with the internal combustion engine. We won't realize that battery technology until after the year 2002. So, what we have now is a target of 2% in the year 1998 that we would ask auto makers to meet. That ramps up, in the year 2001, to 5% and 2003, 10%.

CURWOOD: That target hasn't changed.

DUNLOP: No, it hasn't.

CURWOOD: The original rules that you had, you were going to have 10% in the year 2003, and you're sticking with the 2003.

DUNLOP: That's correct.

CURWOOD: But you're just not requiring the implementation of that 2% in 1998.

DUNLOP: Well actually what we're doing, right now, is we're putting together agreements, binding contracts, with the 7 automakers that would be subject to this program. And we're going to have a technology development partnership element as part of that. We're going to have an early introduction of these lead acid battery powered vehicles. You'll see some. Our numbers tell us you'll have something like 5,000 vehicles offered for sale in 1996 and '97, in advance of any mandate. The auto makers would agree to bring forward what they call a 49-state car, a low emission vehicle standard nationwide, which would benefit California and the rest of the nation some 3 years earlier. So these changes that we're talking about would do nothing but ensure a more successful launch of zero emission vehicles in California and ensure that we get emissions reductions on schedule or earlier.

CURWOOD: John Dunlop is Chairman of the California Air Resources Board. He spoke with us from his office in Sacramento.



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