Board Unplugs Electric Car Plan

California regulators are concluding that the drive to cleaner air shouldn't necessarily be in an electric car.

In a move that alarmed environmentalists but failed to placate automakers, staff for the state's air-quality board Friday proposed to sharply scale back a rule that would put thousands of battery-powered vehicles on California roads by 2003.

Automakers would instead be allowed to sell more vehicles that use other emission-cutting technologies. Examples include the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight — which use both gas and electric motors — or cars that run on natural gas.

The proposal is intended to take some of the expense out of a decade-old set of rules widely credited with sparking a host of innovations that cut motor vehicle pollution. The state Air Resources Board, which directed its staff to draft the revisions in September, will vote on the proposal next month.

Clean-air advocates complained the change would halt the progress made so far toward making electric cars cheap and available enough to be a feasible option for California drivers. Production must increase if the technology, particularly batteries, is ever going to get cheaper, they argue.

"What we're setting up here is a slow death rather than a quick death," said Tim Carmichael, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Clean Air.

California's zero-emission rules have been a model for much of the country. New York, for instance, has adopted the state's requirements, and other states are considering following suit.

The rules, which the board revisits every two years, presently require zero-emission vehicles to make up 4 percent of annual sales by 2003. An additional 6 percent would have to be cars that fall just short of the zero-emission standard.

The proposed changes would split the 4 percent requirement between zero-emission vehicles and cars that use "advanced technologies" such as natural gas, hybrid electric or fuel cell engines.

Because of weighting and other factors, the changes would cut the number of battery-powered cars required by 2003 from an estimated 22,000 to 4,650.

Regulators and environmentalists have considered electric vehicles to be the gold standard of air pollution cleanup, but leading automakers had complained that the state board's rules would make them force an expensive technology with low environmental benefits on consumers who don't want it.

Those complaints did not cease with Friday's proposal, even though board staff estimates the changes would save automakers hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

"We are aggressively opposed to mandates in all forms," said General Motors spokesman Donn Walker. "If there was a market for electric vehicles in California, (the board) wouldn't need a mandate."

Automakers on Thursday proposed that the board drop its mandate for cleaner vehicles and set up a "fair market test" to see if Californians will actually by alternative vehicles. They say spending millions of dollars on marketing has shown interest in alternative vehicles to be virtually nonexistent, a contention electric-car advocates dispute.

"I think a fair market test is to get the vehicles out now and let consumers jump in," said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association of California. "Consumer demand has been whetted" by the roughly 2,300 electric vehicles running in California because of earlier requirements, she said.

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