Special: Investigative: Report: Running on Empty: The Suffocation of Hybrid Electric Vehicle Initiatives

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.”

When a CARB board member asked at a hearing in January for a volunteer to stand in a closed garage with a running, brand-new ultra-low-emissions car, one person — an auto company employee — raised his hand. Either this guy had complete faith in new cleaner-burning cars or he was willing to take one in the lungs for his company. He may not be so crazy. Nissan markets a car, the Sentra CA, that runs so cleanly that the company claims it pollutes less during a moderate daily commute than a regular car does parked in a driveway with gasoline evaporating from its fuel system.

Indeed, major advances in the war on air pollution have occurred without the large-scale use of electric cars. “Ten years from now, every new car will be clean, SULEV or better,” says Michael Gage, president and chief executive officer of CALSTART, a Pasadena-based research and consulting consortium for clean-air transportation technology. “That answers part of the problem. But it doesn’t answer the whole problem.”

As in every environmental battle fought in this nation, from water pollution to airborne emissions to chemicals seeping into the soil, the easy steps that provide the biggest gains have already been taken. It’s the last yard that generates the most bitter fighting.

In September 1990, after two days of testimony and debate, the California Air Resources Board adopted a clean-cars program that was breathtaking in scope.

The board required that, by 1998, 2 percent of all cars sold in the state emit no pollutants from their tailpipes, and 10 percent meet that standard by 2003. It also ordered cleaner-burning gasoline onto the market within two years and set a timetable for tightening emissions from regular cars. By 1993, cars sold in California would be the cleanest in the world. By the first years of the 21st century, as many as 200,000 electric cars were expected to be whispering along California’s streets and freeways.

Although the board didn’t specify battery-powered cars, there was no other technology automakers could hope to have in place by 1998. “Fuel cells [a sealed box in which a chemical reaction creates an electric current] were a known technology, but I don’t think there was any real sense they would or could be a practical automotive technology in the near term,” says Michael Coates, executive editor of Green Car Journal.

In 1990, putting electric cars into consumers’ garages hardly seemed impossible. Earlier that year General Motors had unveiled a prototype called the Impact, and by electric-vehicle standards it rocked. It could whip from zero to 60 in under eight seconds, break the 100-mile-an-hour barrier, and travel 120 miles before needing a recharge. GM Chairman Roger Smith anticipated cranking electric cars off a production line by 1995. His engineers were stoked by what they had wrought. John Zwerner, executive director of GM’s advanced engineering staff, said the Impact “absolutely shattered” the perception of electric cars as plodding golf carts.

But EVs had problems that would prove increasingly vexing. The Impact’s expensive battery pack wouldn’t last more than 25,000 miles, and it cost $1,500 to replace. If battery life could be extended, if gas prices continued to rise, and if there were a market for 100,000 or more EVs each year, GM officials figured they could make money on them. But even then they were skeptical — they’d been down this road before. In the wake of the gas crisis of the early ’70s, GM had rushed out the experimental Electrovette, a battery-powered Chevette. But when gas prices dropped, so did virtually all interest in developing the unpleasant little compact.

So before plunging into the unknown in the early ’90s, Detroit took a hard look around. The nation was in recession, and California was suffering more than most other states. Billions in research and development would be needed to produce cheaper, longer-lasting batteries that could handle a commute from, say, San Jose to San Francisco. And there was no guarantee of success. It was the wrong time, auto execs concluded, to dump a pile of money into electric cars.

And it was the right time to go on the offensive against “anti-business” regulations, especially in California, where no one wanted to be the bureaucrat who shut down factories and cost people their jobs.

By 1992, industry groups were filing objections to California’s clean-air plan with federal Environmental Protection Agency officials, delaying what was usually a rubber-stamp approval from Washington. In October 1993, when board members of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association met in Detroit, the main agenda item was creating a common, industrywide strategy to crush California’s zero-emissions mandate.

Ford had forged ahead on its own. In September 1993, Ford Vice Chairman Alan Gilmour met with Gov. Pete Wilson and told him that no matter how much money Ford pumped into developing an electric vehicle, it had little chance of meeting the mandate.

The smackdown was on — and on a number of fronts. GM had already announced it was dropping its ambitious plans for EV production and was switching to a “pilot” program of just 50 Impacts nationwide. Automakers offered to build clean-burning regular cars sooner than the EPA required, and announced a plan to build an 80-mile-per-gallon car within a decade. Such pronouncements were viewed within the environmental community as designed to undercut the zero-emissions program. Ford unveiled an electric-powered van, then said a three-year lease would cost an eye-popping $100,000. Then a Ford prototype caught fire and burned to the ground.

A month after the Detroit meeting, CARB Chairwoman Jananne Sharpless handed her resignation to Wilson. Sharpless was a fierce supporter of the zero-emissions rule, and even though environmentalists weren’t always happy with her policies, they saw doom in her departure. She’d also managed to piss off the trucking industry over new regulations for diesel fuel, and Wilson had formed a secret task force to analyze the CARB board’s performance under her direction. CALSTART’s Gage was one of the environmentalists who saw her exit as a blow to the zero-emissions mandate.

“There is no direct evidence, but I was certainly one of those who believed that the industry had helped force her out,” Gage says.

Sharpless’ departure was the turning point in the political battle over zero-emissions cars. From then on, it was painfully clear to environmentalists that no matter what the state air board decided, there was always a higher authority to appeal to — one that was more sensitive to political pressure. And pressure there was. Ford lobbyist Steve Blankenship bluntly announced that his employer’s plan was to “ask that this rule be set aside.” The phrase “astroturf lobbying” was coined to describe the faux “grass-roots” groups that popped up to oppose the mandate. One was called Californians Against Hidden Taxes, but it was funded by the oil industry.

Firefighters were baited with incentives from the auto industry to show up at CARB hearings and complain that trying to extinguish a burning EV or fuel-cell car would be dangerous. The heavyweight L.A. lobbying firm Cerrell Associates Inc., hired by Detroit to drive a stake through the mandate’s heart, estimated that automakers poured $500,000 into the fight in the first half of 1995 — the year in which anyone planning to build a 1998-model car would have to retool their assembly lines.

Cerrell may have underestimated the torrent of lobbying cash. A study by the California Public Interest Research Group said that between 1991 and 1995, oil and auto companies spent $29 million on lobbying in California. That figure included nearly $4 million in contributions to legislative candidates statewide, and nearly a cool million to Wilson. It may sound like a lot, but compared to the cost of building electric cars, it was nothing. And there was a higher principle at stake, says Allen J. Scott, director of the UCLA Center for Globalization and Policy Research, and an expert on the EV industry at the time. “What [automakers] were scared of was losing control of the agenda,” he says. “They were particularly concerned about Southern California not only using electric cars, but manufacturing them. The arrogance of GM, in particular, has been remarkable.”

It was not the first time big automakers, with the assistance of the oil industry, decided to reshape the transportation landscape to their liking.

Between 1936 and 1950, National City Lines, a holding company controlled by GM, Firestone, and Standard Oil of California, bought out more than 100 electric trolley systems in 45 cities, including L.A., New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, and Tulsa. The popular public transit networks were dismantled and GM buses took their places. In 1949, the National City partners were convicted in federal court in Chicago of criminal conspiracy. The penalty? A $5,000 fine.

Nearly half a century later, the automakers and oil refiners staged another stunning coup, this time at CARB. In March 1996, the state agency repealed much of the zero-emissions mandate, including the 1998 deadline for getting the first EVs on the road.

CARB caved in partly because of its own fears — specifically, that hideously expensive battery-powered cars with little range would stack up on dealer lots. Such an outcome would have done little toward regulators’ goals of cleaning the air and advancing clean-transportation technology. Yes, the agency could have fined automakers $5,000 per gas-powered vehicle sold, or taken them to court. But fines don’t do much to clean the air — or convince drivers to buy EVs they don’t want. Instead of imposing firm goals, CARB allowed the automakers to secretly set their own quotas for producing emissions-free cars. The agency refused to publicly disclose how many vehicles the manufacturers would produce, or to penalize them for missing those goals — whatever they might be.

Environmentalists dismissed the agreements as not worth the paper they were written on. CARB board member Ron Roberts accused the automakers of waging a campaign to smear the electric car and complained that even board members wouldn’t be told how many zero-emissions cars Detroit actually agreed to build. “We were being told that the agreements were just a floor, a minimum of what the auto manufacturers were going to do,” recalls Tim Carmichael, executive director of the Santa Monica-based Coalition for Clean Air. “And we told CARB that the industry would only do what they were forced to do, and it turns out they didn’t even do that. There was a lot of outrage. We knew what was going to happen.”

Carmichael and other pessimists turned out to be right. Honda pulled the plug on its EV program after meeting the “goal” it had secretly negotiated with the board — a measly 300 cars. Others didn’t even bother to meet their pathetically modest goals. “[The secret agreements] did not work,” admits Mike Kinny, CARB’s executive officer. “We do not have cars being offered in the market. [The manufacturers] did not comply.”

Facing an expensive, fruitless court battle to enforce the secret pacts, CARB essentially gave up on them. But the industry has not reduced its pressure to gut the zero-emissions rule. In the last quarter of 2000, GM alone spent nearly $175,000 on lobbying against the mandate.

Stomp on the accelerator of Lisa Rosen’s little EV1 and the front tires squawk, protesting the sudden overwhelming power.

Electric motors produce a lot of torque, particularly from a standing start. And the speed continues to grow, and quickly. When it was introduced, the EV1 was quicker from zero to 60 than some Acura models. With the most sophisticated batteries, it will run 150 miles on a charge. For all practical purposes, Rosen leaves the house every day with all the fuel she needs. Even with multiple EVs charging at her house, her electricity bill never exceeds $70 a month — and the recently installed solar charging panels atop her home will slash that bill even further. A quick-charger that can be carried with the car will bring the vehicle from 15 percent to 80 percent charged in two hours — and even more rapid chargers are in development.

EVs are inherently simpler to build and smoother-running than traditional cars, and General Motors engineers created a truly amazing vehicle in the EV1. Its shape is slick, its fiberglass body is light, and its tires offer minimal rolling resistance. It’s probably safe to say that if GM could have produced this kind of vehicle in the early ’90s at reasonable cost, electric cars would not be such a novelty today.

But there was another development in those years that, in hindsight, may have signaled the beginning of the end for electric cars.

In 1992, Honda announced that it would be able to meet tighter 1994 pollution standards a year early with its Civic VX Hatchback. A bigger catalytic converter, a better oxygen sensor, improved fuel injectors, and — shazam! — the dirty old internal combustion engine was cleaning up its act faster than expected. Automakers knew they had to offer a clean-air alternative if they were ever going to kill off the zero-emissions rule. Why not find an alternative more to their corporate liking? They applied cattle prods to their engineers and made them produce cleaner-running cars than were thought possible.

By August 1995, Honda had certified several Civics as low-emission vehicles, and by November 1999, CARB had approved models by Honda and Nissan as SULEVs — super-ultra-low-emission vehicles. With a sealed fuel system that allows no gasoline to evaporate and a guarantee that the pollution-control systems will work for 150,000 miles, Nissan’s is so clean that state regulators agreed to give the automaker partial credit toward its zero-emissions goal.

Nissan says its SULEV might fail to meet pollution standards at 150,000 miles if the owner forgets to change the oil on a regular basis. The incremental extra wear in the cylinders could allow a baby’s breath of oil from the crankcase into the combustion chambers, introducing new and additional pollutants into the exhaust stream. Engineers charged with further cleansing the internal combustion engine certainly are working in the realm of diminishing returns. But what they have wrought is dramatic. By the state’s own admission, SULEVs are eight times cleaner than the ultra-low-emissions vehicles available on dealers’ lots today — and more than 99 percent cleaner than pre-1990 cars.

Faced with numbers like that, state air-quality officials felt in January that it was reasonable to give the automakers that built SULEVs partial credit toward meeting their zero-emissions goals. Technically, 10 percent of all cars in the 2003 model year still have to be zero-emissions vehicles — but you can build other types of clean-air vehicles and get credit for up to 8 percent of that goal.

Automakers don’t have nearly the problems — technical or philosophical — building them that they have with electric cars. Detroit’s representatives bitched and whined relentlessly to CARB about being required to make up to 15,450 zero-emissions cars by 2003. But the automakers didn’t blink at building roughly 100,000 ULEVs or SULEVs by that year — and more than 400,000 by 2006.

“My heart wished very much to be as close to the original mandate as possible,” says CARB Chairman Alan Lloyd. “But that was too optimistic. We needed to continue the pressure, but we have to recognize some of the limitations the manufacturers are up against.”

And truth be told, the Holy Grail of electric cars — batteries giving them the range and flexibility of gas-burning cars at an affordable price — remains elusive, although tremendous strides have been made. But whether automakers put enough money and effort into the research is a matter of sharp debate among those on the cutting edge of clean-air transportation.

“I believe there was a good-faith effort. Whether it was as much as could have or should have been done, that’s the issue,” says Coates of Green Car Journal. “Part of it is a technology issue, but a big part is the cost issue; the expectation was that costs for advanced batteries would drop, like computers did, but that did not happen.” Lloyd echoed those sentiments. “What we ran into are some fundamental cost issues which are proving more intractable than we thought,” he says.

Not everyone agrees. Stan Ovshinski, president of Energy Conversion Devices in Troy, Mich., lives for technological breakthroughs. The man virtually created solar-energy cells, holds 250 U.S. patents, was named a “Hero for the Planet” by Time magazine in 1999, and is probably smarter than any 10 people you know combined.

“The people who are saying that battery technology isn’t ready are absolutely wrong,” he says. “It’s part of the party line. It’s self-perpetuating. It’s very sad. You tell a lie big enough and long enough and people start to believe it. The fact of the matter is volume. That’s the only reason batteries are the cost they are.”

With the advances in pollution controls for gas-fueled vehicles, the question isn’t really whether the mighty car industry, with its massive financial and technological resources, can actually put an electric car on the market. It’s whether it’s really necessary. GM’s Walker cheerfully concedes that the EV1 is one badass little car. And if the market volume was there, he says, the price would drop well below the $100,000 GM figures the car costs to produce.

But even CARB acknowledges that in the best-case scenario, a battery-powered car will cost at least $20,000 more than a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle. And there are hidden costs. For example, how much would a dealership have to invest in equipment to service an EV?

Vehicle emissions make up nearly three-quarters of the smog-forming pollutants in L.A.’s skies, and there is little argument that slashing tailpipe emissions will be necessary to meet federal air-quality standards. The question is how to slash them.

According to CARB’s calculations, putting hundreds of thousands of ULEVs and SULEVs on the road — something the automakers are willing to do to meet the revised zero-emissions mandate — will cut pollution about as much as putting a far smaller number of pure zero-emissions vehicles on the roads. And requiring SULEVs to stay that way for 150,000 miles means more of them will work their way into the hands of poor people, eliminating the older, barely running cars that belch the most air pollutants per mile.

“It’s not that we can’t [build electric cars],” Walker says. “It’s that we don’t think it’s the right thing to do. In financial terms, it’s insane.”

The scene might not have been insane, but it was completely surreal.

The inspector wandered through the home of Lisa Rosen and Doug Korthof, checking to make sure the new arrival would have a good environment to live in. The couple had already passed the initial screening. They were a two-car family, they were both over 25, they had a house with an enclosed garage and good wiring, their income was adequate. All they had to do was pass the house inspection, sign the lease papers and Honda would hand them a bouncing baby EV Plus, the company’s latest foray into the electric-car market.

“I swear, it was more like an adoption than buying a car,” Rosen recalls.

From the beginning of the zero-emissions-vehicle mandate, Detroit and Japan have repeated, mantralike, their contention that people would not buy underpowered, limited-range, expensive electric cars. But their marketing and development strategies have left critics convinced that they never gave the market a chance.

Even today, trying to buy or lease an electric car is amazingly difficult. For example, Ford’s EV Ranger, a battery-powered light truck, is technically on the market in California. But only 148 of them are available nationwide.

“I have had salesmen tell me, “You don’t want that,'” Korthof says, relating his experiences in trying to pry an EV out of a dealer showroom. “I have pulled out my checkbook in dealerships, pointed to the car and said, “Give it to me, let’s do the deal,’ and they’ll say, “No, you’ve got to talk to a specialist.'”

Walker of General Motors responds that automakers must explain to potential buyers what an EV can and cannot do, and many people who initially express interest turn away after learning the details. And there are a lot of very rational business reasons for dealers to want to stick with the products that makes them money: regular cars and trucks.

At least GM made a real stab at building an electric car from the ground up. Other manufacturers simply converted regular cars, trucks, and vans to electric power, and those always will be engineering compromises.

Chrysler simply didn’t bother to put much money into developing an electric car, eventually coming up with a van so crappy that many in the environmental community thought it was intentionally designed to prove that EVs weren’t ready for production yet.

In 1999, Honda announced that it was halting production of its EV Plus. At about the same time, Southern California Edison announced that it was shutting down a subsidiary that was planting charging stations around the Southwest. CARB officials doubt that any private motorist ever actually bought or leased the Chrysler van. Automakers say their experiences proved that no one wants an electric car.

But entrepreneur Mike Corbin, of Hollister, built a nifty little one-seat electric car, put it on the market, and got so many orders that he’s moving into a bigger factory this year. Corbin, who made a fortune selling comfortable motorcycle seats, asked himself a question back in the early 1990s: If most people commute alone, why not build a car for one person? He sank $5 million of his own money into the answer and came up with the Sparrow.

Since he introduced it in 1999, Corbin has sold more than 200 Sparrows, and he has a waiting list of about 1,000 customers. The Sparrow is freeway-legal, insurable, and licensable in all 50 states. It’s legal for carpool lanes, and the latest models are fully chargeable within 20 minutes from any regular 110-volt outlet, company officials claim. “Everybody laughed at this, but Mike is a visionary,” says Ron Huch, president of Corbin Motors. “It’s something that the car guys aren’t willing to do. They think in terms of 100,000 units, and they are absolutely committed to full-size cars. To date, we’ve invested only $15 million — Detroit couldn’t get a committee together for that.”

To CALSTART’s Gage, the market hasn’t been adequately tested. “Has there been a good-faith effort to meet the demand? No. To the best of my knowledge, there has been a waiting list for every electric vehicle made,” he says. “But there’s no question that the automakers have lost money on every one they’ve made.”

With newer battery technology, electric vehicles are making some inroads in places they were expected to be years ago. The U.S. Postal Service has taken delivery of Ford’s battery-powered postal van. And high-tech batteries, combined with software advances, have revolutionized the potential for hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, though some would argue they aren’t quite ready for the market.

Car and Driver magazine tested the Prius, got scarcely more than 35 miles a gallon — admittedly in cold weather, which cuts the car’s fuel efficiency — and called it “perhaps the first car that runs on guilt.”

But even SULEVs won’t meet the no-tailpipe-emissions requirement for 2003, and the marketing battle for pure EVs is expected to heat up again — that is, if the mandate isn’t further eroded by automaker and oil-industry political and legal maneuvering. General Motors has filed suit to overturn the mandate, saying it illegally ignores cheaper and more effective ways to clean the air. And Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh (D-L.A.), has introduced legislation to block CARB from imposing penalties on car manufacturers for violating the zero-emissions mandate.

If the mandate survives, don’t expect to see fleets of the zippy EV1s hitting the streets. What both Ford and GM are talking about offering are “city cars” — electric-powered cars that aren’t fast enough to travel on the freeway safely. The city cars are supposed to be capable of surface-street travel, but GM’s Walker isn’t optimistic about putting these smaller, slower vehicles on the real-world roads of hulking SUVs.

“They’re unsafe, too small, but they’re the only way to meet the mandate without being taken to the cleaners,” he says. “People love the EV1, but who wouldn’t love a $100,000 car that they’re getting for a fraction of that?” Simply put, the existing oil-dependent auto industry isn’t going to change its outlook without the carrot of profits dangling in front of it. “The internal combustion engine is here to stay. It’s what customers want,” Walker says.

Gage of CALSTART has been peering into the crystal ball of clean-transportation technology longer than most. “What will have to happen is what is known as disruptive technology — a breakthrough that makes the existing technology obsolete,” he says. “It could be out there, but right now there’s just no market for it. The difficulty is finding a group without the investment in the status quo [but] with the financial wherewithal.”

Carmichael of the Coalition for Clean Air says the need for zero-emissions cars remains critical, because no matter how clean internal combustion engines get, they will still pollute to some extent. “This never was just about getting big air-pollution gains in 2003,” he says. “It is about creating a new system of transportation for the long term, a clean system. And waiting for the automakers to create it on their own is, in my opinion, the least likely scenario. There will have to be the technological breakthrough, the regulators will have to find religion, or there has to be a groundswell from the public. And we see sparks of that — every time the automakers talk about how inadequate electric cars are, the owners talk about how much, in truth, they love them.” Detroit automakers have spent millions attempting to unplug California’s effort to put electric cars on the road. And so far, Detroit’s succeeding.

Author: Michael Gougis

News Service: SF Weekly

URL: http://www.sfweekly.com/issues/2001-06-27/feature.html/page1.html