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

Detroit May Cooperate on Electric Cars

Air Date: Week of

Paul Eisenstein reports from Detroit on the US auto industry's efforts to meet the 1998 deadline for mass-producing electric cars. The EPA has given the go-ahead for California and other states to mandate the sale of electric cars, and concerns over lagging technology may lead to increased cooperation between the big three.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

By the time today's seventh-graders finish high school, a good number of them should be able to drive off to college in electric cars. By 1998 at least two percent of new cars sold in California must be smog-free, "zero-emission vehicles." And as a practical matter, that means they'll run on electricity.

The Environmental Protection Agency has just given the California law the green light ,and several states in the Northeast are likely to follow California's lead. But with the deadline approaching, some of Detroit's efforts to go electric seem stalled. Faced with serious technical and financial problems, General Motors has scuttled its vanguard electric model, and GM is now looking to other Big Three competitors for help. Paul Eisenstein reports from Detroit.

(Sound of electric car)

EISENSTEIN: This is the sound of the Impact, a two-seat electric vehicle, or EV. Later this year, General Motors will begin testing fifty of them on California highways to see how they perform and hold up. That's the good news. The bad news is that GM has canceled plans to put the Impact in mass production, and that's raising a lot of questions whether the future, as envisioned by California, is a little premature.

SCHWEIBOLD: We've got some sense our production program was a little bit ahead of where customer perceptions and customer requirements are right now.

EISENSTEIN: Frank Schweibold is Director of Strategic Planning on the Impact project. He says cost is a big problem. The Impact would probably carry a price tag equal to a roomy luxury car. But in terms of creature comforts, it would resemble an inexpensive subcompact. And Schweibold notes there are a lot of questions about how to make the switch from gasoline to electric power. For one thing, where would an EV owner go to charge up? Would there be "power stations"? Or would you simply plug into a charger at home?

SCHWEIBOLD: Certainly, here in Detroit, there aren't too many places you can get your electric vehicle charged up and we're a little concerned that even two or three years down the pike, that perhaps the infrastructure may not be up to the level of development to support substantial numbers of electric vehicles in the marketplace.

EISENSTEIN: The decision to abort the Impact project is leaving a lot of people wondering what will happen next. Some industry leaders had hoped it would send a signal to California regulators to delay or even abandon their plans. But that's not going to happen, according to Joanna Sharpless, co-chair of the California Air Resources Board.

SHARPLESS: The fact that General Motors made the decision that they made does not, in our mind, mean that the 1998 mandate is in jeopardy. 1998 is a very do-able timeframe to meet this mandate.

EISENSTEIN: Regulators in a number of other states, including Massachusetts and New York, agree, and they're likely to copy California's EV standards.
So, while GM may be scaling back its electric car program, industry research continues to pick up momentum. On the back streets of Dearborn, Michigan, Bob Kiessel is driving a prototype of the Ecostar, a battery-powered minivan that the Ford Motor Company will soon put into limited production.

KIESSEL: At Ford, we are continuing to proceed with the development of our electric vehicles, the Ecostar in particular. We plan to have it come out next May. We don't plan to change our plans and we're very pleased with the progress we've made to date.

EISENSTEIN: Even with that progress, Ford officials aren't sure they've come up with a formula that will appeal to consumers, for electric cars have some inherent disadvantages. The Ecostar carries nearly 900 pounds of batteries, yet they contain only about as much energy as two gallons of gasoline. And even by using special low-resistance tires and lightweight body panels, that's only about enough to get 100 miles per charge, if the driver doesn't use the headlights and heater. To try to solve that problem, the Big Three automakers formed a unique coalition two years ago, dubbed the US Advanced Battery Consortium, or US-ABC. Dr. John McTeague is head of research at Ford, and oversees the US-ABC program.

McTEAGUE: It's more helpful to producing the ends we wish to produce if as many people, as many players as possible, can be operating in parallel.

EISENSTEIN: When GM decided to scale back its plans for the Impact, it proposed greatly expanding the level of cooperation among the Big Three. With their current financial problems, GM officials admit they can no longer go it alone. In the months to come, the Big Three expect to launch a series of additional electric vehicle projects. At the very least, they're likely to share secrets that could result in more efficient electric motors and lighter-weight body panels. It's possible they may even build a number of different electric vehicles at a single shared plant. The Department of Energy is helping fund the battery consortium, and Federal research labs are likely to participate in the new ventures, too. But Big Three executives plan to be parochial and exclude the Japanese. And that's something that worries Yale Gieszl, Toyota's top American executive.

GIESZL: There is a need for cooperation on a global basis between the Japanese, the European, and the American automakers in addressing some of the major technical challenges we're facing in the areas of the environment, safety, electric vehicles. Some of our global problems are global, they're not national. If we solve it in one area of the world, it seems to me we have to solve it in other areas of the world as well.

EISENSTEIN: US auto executives laugh when the Japanese complain about being locked out. They note that the Japanese automakers have long had their own cooperative programs under the guidance of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Toyota and Nissan deny recent reports that they're forming their own electric car consortium. But they point out that they are participating in an EV program under the guidance of MITI, an agency that regulates Japanese industrial policy. And so, it seems that the effort to develop a competitive electric vehicle is becoming more and more a race between nations rather than individual companies. For Living on Earth, I'm Paul Eisenstein in Detroit.



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