Science & Technology

Suing for Relief

GM takes California to court


It's no surprise that trying to clean the air by getting people to drive electric cars is a California idea: It's the perfect melding of the Golden State's historic smog problems with its taste for utopian technological innovation. Yet the battery-powered electric vehicle may be a technological and commercial dead end, even as it remains central to the California air-quality program now being emulated by New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine. No wonder, then, that the biggest car maker, General Motors, and several of its dealers are suing for regulatory relief in state Superior Court in Contra Costa County.

In the late 1980s, utilities and environmentalists pushed for laws forcing the introduction of zero-emission vehicles to California's car lots. In 1990, the California Air Resources Board, which has broad powers to regulate emissions throughout the state, decreed that car makers would have to put a percentage of ZEVs in their showrooms for sale. The mandate was to be phased in through 2003, when 10 percent of all new cars offered for sale were to be electric. CARB relaxed that number several times, most recently in 1996 to 2 percent.

The board wanted to allow extra time for "a market-based introduction of ZEVs" and to promote advances in electric-vehicle battery technology." Originally, the mandate would have translated into some 170,000 ZEVs, but the figure was subsequently slashed to 22,000.

By 2001, however, only 2,200 battery cars were humming along California's freeways. Why? The major reason is that meaningful "advances in electric-vehicle battery" capacity just haven't materialized in a way that would make ZEVs economical to end users, even with massive subsidies and tax breaks offered along the way. There are some high-tech batteries that can take a small electric car more than 100 miles between charges. But they cost about $250,000 each, so the basic production-line ZEV—typified by General Motors' sleek two-seater EV-1—relies instead on a lead-acid cell battery that gets about 75 miles to the average charge and adds 60 percent to the cost and weight of the car. (The worn-out batteries are also difficult to dispose of.)

Manufacturers contend that the average customer visiting a Saturn dealer (the EV-1's licensed vendor) would be more attracted to a $19,000 4-door Saturn sedan than a 2-seater EV-1 with an ostensible price tag of $35,000 (which could, in fact, only be leased at $499 a month). Given the higher price and relatively shoddy mileage, demand for battery-powered ZEVs has not developed—despite a passel of tax incentives. Discouraged by slack sales, companies cut ZEV production last year, with GM—to all appearances—getting out of the electric car business altogether.

The ZEV lobby, a major presence at CARB meetings, is accusing automakers not of market failure, but of treachery. CARB director Alan Lloyd idealizes the battery-powered car, with its complete lack of tailpipe emissions, as "the gold standard" of air quality, forgetting, perhaps, that this metallic basis for money has been discarded by the world.

While the battery-powered ZEV may be dead, other alternatives are very much alive. CARB's own technical staff recently observed that, while unable to improve the storage battery, science was making much progress in other clean-air technologies. "Hybrid vehicles," which deftly combine electric motors with small, clean gas engines, were emerging, and even some gasoline vehicles were approaching the zero-emission standard due to computer-enhanced emission control. It is also assumed, both by the board and many manufacturers, that hydrogen fuel-cell cars—another zero-emission technology—will be available by 2003.

Last year, the staff asked the board to cut the already abated 2003 mandate for 22,000 ZEVs back to something the market might actually accommodate—around 2,000 more vehicles than are currently on the road. This would favor gas-electric alternatives like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, which are selling well even though they cost about 10 percent more than a comparable gas-burner. The technical staff appears to have assumed that selling hundreds of thousands of hybrid and other very-low-emission cars (hybrids are 98 percent clean, not far off the ZEVs' 100 percent) would have a greater net effect on statewide air pollution than putting 20,000 ZEVs on California auto lots.

The auto industry insisted that CARB drop the 2003 ZEV requirement completely, and a battle royal ensued. The result: The board now says between 4,600 and 15,000 ZEVs must be on car lots by 2003, at a build cost to car makers of up to half a billion dollars. Ford, the only current ZEV maker, eagerly accepted, and other manufacturers tagged along.

But GM sued, contending that building ZEVs was 150 times costlier than alternative clean-air measures such as elimination of diesel pollution and encouragement of hybrid vehicles. CARB's Lloyd clucked, "GM has decided to place its future in the hands of its lawyers, rather than its engineers."

Perhaps. Observers are predicting an ugly, drawn-out fight that will consume a lot of time, energy, and resources that might be spent elsewhere. But many also hope that the suit, however acrimonious, will answer definitively whether any real demand exists for low-range battery cars—and whether there are indeed better ways to clean the Golden State's air.