California orders manufacturers to sell electric cars

The California Air Resources Board voted unanimously to require car makers to sell electric vehicles. Manufacturers are unhappy with the decision.

From 2003, six manufacturers will be required to place 4,650 full-size electric cars and a similar number of other vehicles including hybrids and fuel cell cars, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) announced. A Los Angeles Times article says that some electric cars could be in showrooms by as early as this autumn. By 2010, about 22,000 such cars must be made available and 50,000 by 2018, with sport utility vehicles joining the programme in 2007. The provisions can be met using full-size battery-powered cars.

The six companies required to offer these cars for sale are DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. CARB’s unanimous vote automatically triggers copycat mandates in Vermont, Massachusetts and New York, where 8% of the nation’s new cars are sold. Under federal law, those states could require electric vehicles only if California did so, the newspaper says.

The changes are intended to increase consumer confidence in clean vehicles, lower the costs of the cars and have a number on the roads as soon as possible. Vehicles account for 70% of the smog-forming emissions in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and deep cuts in those emissions are necessary if the region hopes to achieve the federal deadline for healthy air in 2010. Although a small new fleet of electric cars would not, by itself, make a major dent in smog, supporters of the programme, like Ellen Garvey, Executive Officer of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, say it is a crucial first step. “The (so-called) zero emission vehicle (ZEV) programme is the linchpin to cleaning up all our cars and most of our trucks,” she said at CARB’s hearing. “It’s not only a programme for drivers, it’s a programme for breathers.”

The new rule came after a reportedly acrimonious debate on 25 January in which representatives of the automobile industry urged CARB to abandon the ZEV mandate, arguing that battery-powered cars are impractical and unmarketable. “Our companies have explored the path of battery electric vehicles. However, electric cars with broad consumer appeal are an idea whose time has come and gone, much like eight-track tapes, Betamax and New Coke,” Josephine Cooper, President of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told board members. The alliance, representing the world’s 13 largest vehicle makers, had urged the board to replace the mandate with a three-year pilot project that would not have allowed other states to require electric cars.

But the 11-member board decided that requiring manufacturers to begin mass production would bring down costs and force the development of new technologies to ultimately expand the range and reduce the cost of the vehicles. They said it would also act as a powerful incentive to develop cars powered with fuel cells, which convert hydrogen to electricity and have the potential ultimately to replace the internal combustion engine (see related story).

The electric-powered cars and light trucks that will be produced as a result of the rule will come in all shapes and sizes, from freeway-challenged mini-cars that Ford may produce for urban use to a whisper-quiet, battery-powered sport utility vehicle from Toyota and a gasoline-electric hybrid sedan from Honda. But air quality officials concede that battery-powered cars will cost $22,000 more than comparable gasoline-powered models and have only half the range or less. Only batteries can power a practical non-polluting car today, experts said. In their effort to roll back the mandate, the car makers gained support from some legislators representing minority communities, who argued that their constituents will not be able to afford advanced technology cars.

Opponents of the rule also argued that electric cars would worsen California’s electricity shortages (see related story). State officials have dismissed that argument, noting that electric cars refuel at night, when the state has surplus power, and that by the time they hit the state’s highways, new power plants now being built will have increased electricity supplies.

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