Running on Empty

Detroit automakers have spent millions attempting to unplug California's effort to put electric cars on the road. And so far, Detroit's succeeding.

It was a moment of severe cognitive dissonance for Lisa Rosen. The Seal Beach probation officer sat in the basement meeting room of a state office building in Sacramento. The room was packed. For hours, she listened to the world's biggest automakers beg clean-air regulators to kill off a state requirement to put emission-free cars and trucks on California's roads.

The party line, parroted by representatives of General Motors, Ford, Honda, Toyota, and other automakers, was that electric-powered vehicles, the only type that can meet the zero-tailpipe-emissions mandate right now, just don't cut it. Their batteries are too expensive, they don't go far or fast enough, they're too small, no one will buy them. Detroit has raised the same objections to battery-powered vehicles for decades. "Electric cars with broad consumer appeal are an idea whose time has come and gone, much like eight-track tapes, Betamax, and New Coke," said Jo Cooper, president of an industry lobbying group that represents the builders of nine of every 10 cars sold in the United States.

Rosen just shook her head. Her reality clashed sharply with the verbal pictures being painted in the hearing room. Three times in recent months, she had driven a sprightly little GM electric car, known as an EV1, to Sacramento to speak in defense of electric vehicles. In other words, she had driven a car that auto manufacturers said they couldn't afford to make on a trip they said the car couldn't take. She and her family, by no means wealthy, had to fight like hell to get their hands on their EV1, a sleek, rapid two-seater that still turns heads in auto-jaded Los Angeles.

Her car had never left her stranded on her 31-mile commute to work, never left her searching for a place to recharge. Her family loved the thing so much they quickly divested themselves of all but one gasoline-powered car, and that one, a Toyota, usually sits unused in their driveway. When she and her husband, Douglas Korthof, head for Santa Barbara or San Diego, they grab the EV1. The car has an "I * New York" sticker in the rear window that it actually earned; their son had driven it from Southern California to Montreal and then decided to swing through Times Square.

"Once you get out of the habit of going to gas stations, you don't miss it at all," she says. "But driving electric cars is a direct challenge to the auto industry and the oil industry. They hate us."

Direct challenge is a good way to describe the interaction between state regulators determined to clean up the nation's worst air pollution and the companies that were supposed to build the cars to make that possible. When the California Air Resources Board (CARB) voted way back in 1990 to require automakers to put zero-emissions vehicles in their showrooms within eight years, Detroit went along with the plan, admittedly a bit hesitantly, almost like someone going on a blind date. But within three years, with the nation's economy slumping enough to cost Bush Senior a second term at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and the ass-whupping Detroit had taken at the hands of Japanese automakers still fresh in its memory, the relationship had deteriorated to the point of open hostility.

Perhaps the Big Three were secretly influenced by the rebellious ideology of Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, because "by any means necessary" certainly describes Detroit's efforts to undermine and destroy CARB's groundbreaking zero-emissions-vehicle mandate. With high-powered lobbyists and environment-friendly-sounding "grass-roots" organizations that were simply industry-funded shills, with legal attacks and half-hearted technological efforts (save General Motors -- the EV1 is widely considered an engineering gem), the auto industry -- frequently joined by its oil-refining brethren -- has missed few opportunities to chip away at the mandate. When CARB first passed the zero-emissions rule, GM alone would have had to put more than 6,500 electric cars on the road by 1998. To date, only about 5,000 such vehicles have been sold or leased in California by all manufacturers.

The electricity crisis has provided automakers with yet another opportunity to bash the mandate. When the first rolling blackouts hit earlier this year, automakers immediately suggested that electric cars would worsen California's power shortage, even though every other analysis shows that the drain on the state's power grid by electric vehicles -- usually charged at night, when power demand is lowest -- would be insignificant for years to come.

There are billions of reasons why automakers, oil companies, and other industries reliant on the status quo want the state mandate dead. Those reasons are the dollars to be made from a complex worldwide transportation system built around an internal combustion engine fueled by dead dinosaurs. But over the past decade automakers, prodded by ever-tightening government emissions and fuel-economy regulations, have in fact developed cars that are far cleaner than anyone would have thought possible not long ago. Today the performance of the best electric cars is much closer to that of gasoline-powered cars. But gasoline-powered cars are much closer to electric cars in terms of tailpipe pollution.

Already, a 2001 sedan that meets what the state calls LEV, or "low emission vehicle" pollution standards, is 97 percent cleaner than a new car from the early 1970s. On the drawing boards and heading for auto showrooms are cars that meet SULEV -- super-ultra-low-emission vehicle -- pollution standards. Those will be 99 percent cleaner than a car from the pre-emissions-control '70s, and the manufacturers must certify that they will still meet those pollution limits with 150,000 miles on the odometer. The reality of manufacturing tolerances means that, given regular maintenance, SULEV cars and trucks will stay clean for their entire life spans. "Essentially, we've taken out almost all of the emissions from the tailpipe," says Donn Walker, a regional spokesman for General Motors. "Everyone wants cleaner air; we just disagree on how to go about getting there."

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