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

California Cars

Air Date: Week of

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TOOMEY: California's Air Resources Board meets on January twenty-fifth, and is expected to officially relax its requirement that auto makers sell tens of thousands of Zero Emission Vehicles by the end of the decade. The state's mandate spurred manufacturers to invest billions of dollars to develop and market electric cars with advanced battery technology. And clean air advocates argue that taking the pressure off the industry now will slow a push for more fuel efficient vehicles. But California regulators say they're taking a pragmatic step that won't sacrifice air quality goals. Jeff Hoffman reports from San Francisco.

HOFFMAN: California's Air Resources Board currently requires that in 2003 four percent of new cars sold here by major auto makers must have zero emissions. Those failing to meet the requirement face stiff penalties on each vehicle sold in California. Collectively, the six largest auto companies would have to sell more than 22,000 battery electric cars, currently the only zero emission vehicles. Auto makers say there isn't demand for that many electrics, which cost much more than conventional cars and have limited range. They've put only 5,000 on the road in California since the mid 1990s.

OLSON: Electric cars are a theology, not a technology. This is not about clean air. It's about political pressure from well-meaning but I'm afraid misguided, environmental groups.

HOFFMAN: Jim Olson oversees regulatory affairs for Toyota in the United States. He says the company is losing money on an electric version of its RAV-4 sport utility, which Toyota has been market-testing in California since 1998. That's mainly because of the high cost of advanced batteries.

OLSON: There are too many other alternatives that are in the marketplace, or coming, or on the not-too-distant horizon, that we would prefer, the auto industry would, to spend our resources on. And it would deliver clean air for California a lot faster than electric cars.

HOFFMAN: Those alternatives include hybrids powered by both a gasoline engine and a battery motor. Hybrids don't have to be charged up, get up to 70 miles per gallon of ordinary gas, and cost only a few thousand dollars more than conventional cars. Proposed changes to California's policy would give auto makers Zero Emission Vehicle credits for hybrids. Toyota, for example, could replace half of its quota of about 2,500 electric cars with sales of its sleek hybrid sedan, the Prius. Mike Kenny is Executive Director of the Air Resources Board. He says the board is reacting to technological change and isn't caving in to industry pressure.

KENNY: What we really have forced to occur over the last ten years is this development of this multitude of technologies, all of which give us huge advantages on air quality.

HOFFMAN: Indeed, in the past two decades, the state's insistence on cleaner-burning gasoline and more efficient cars has achieved a massive reduction in pollution, especially in smog-plagued Los Angeles. Even so, 95 percent of Californians still live in areas where air quality doesn't meet state or federal standards.

HATHAWAY: We have made progress, but the question is, do you say that you've finished when you haven't even seen a commercial takeoff of the most important technology, which is true zero emission battery or fuel cell technology?

HOFFMAN: Janet Hathaway is a lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She says the proposed rule changes send the wrong signal to makers of cars and advanced batteries.

HATHAWAY: It is a crippling change. The technology is a great one, it's available now, and we need to have certainty in the market in order for the cost to come down.

HOFFMAN: Some analysts say California regulators are taking a flexible and politically expedient approach to air quality goals. Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis, says electric cars will fill a niche in short-haul transportation, but will never compete head to head with full-sized gasoline vehicles.

SPERLING: Many fear that this is the end of the battery electric technology in particular. I don't think that's correct. I believe the Air Resources Board is dealing with a reality. You cannot force a technology that's very expensive into the marketplace.

HOFFMAN: Sperling adds that the zero emission mandate forced the industry to invest heavily in clean car technology. Breakthroughs stemming from research on battery electrics led to the hybrid, which could prove to be the missing link between today's cars and tomorrow's hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Auto makers like hybrids because they don't require major changes in consumer behavior. Drivers don't have to deal with complicated charging devices. They just fill up the tank and go. Toyota's Japan-built Prius, on sale for just a few months in the U.S., is winning quick acceptance in the market, says executive Jim Olson.

OLSON: We cannot get enough of them, basically. And we do intend to take the hybrid technology in the Prius and put it into other vehicles in the future here in the United States. We think the technology has a very bright future.

HOFFMAN: Even Detroit is scrambling to get on the hybrid bandwagon. Earlier this month, at the North American Auto Show, Ford announced it would build a hybrid version of the gas guzzling Explorer sport utility vehicle. General Motors, meanwhile, says it plans a full line of hybrids. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Hoffman in San Francisco.

TOOMEY: Just ahead: Eco-terrorists, disgruntled snow bunnies, and an evil empire. A tale of arson, money, and mystery on Colorado's fabled Vail Mountain is coming up. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

Now, this environmental business update with Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

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