Is It Too Soon To Jump Start Electric Cars?

Starting this spring, 20 intrepid Boston-area commuters will hop behind the wheels of electric cars to see how they handle the rigors of urban travel. The outcome may not count for much now: 12 Northeast states and the District of Columbia on Feb. 1 decided to follow California's lead and force carmakers to sell electric vehicles, starting in 1998. But down the road, the Boston results could prove compelling.

The backing of electrics by the Northeastern states and California leaves auto makers little choice but to gear up for mass production of electric vehicles--an effort in which manufacturers in the U.S., Japan, and Europe all contend they will almost surely lose huge sums. "It will be very difficult" to build an attractive, affordable electric car, says Tomoyuki Sugiyama, a Honda Motor Co. executive chief engineer.

TEMPERAMENTAL. The big question: Are electric vehicles being pushed too fast? Critics argue that electric vehicles may not actually cut smog and other pollution in the Northeast. That's because much of the region's electricity is generated by coal- and oil-fired plants that themselves spew out plenty of nasty pollutants.

Moreover, few people believe that consumers in the Northeast will embrace this new breed of auto. Battery technology hasn't progressed as fast as backers had hoped. Today's most advanced electrics--including GM's prototype Impact--go a maximum of 100 miles per charge, can be temperamental in cold weather, and will cost $2,000 to $15,000 more than conventional cars.

To be sure, electric buggies have advantages. It's easier to control pollution from stationary generating plants than to monitor millions of peripatetic tailpipes. Moreover, the electrics don't have sensitive emission-control systems that deteriorate with use. That's why they may be right for places such as Los Angeles, where electricity comes from distant plants and where air quality is terrible.

Several studies conclude that they'll help improve the air significantly in the Northeast, too. A 1992 paper prepared for the Northeast States For Coordinated Air Use Management, a coalition of eight states, predicts that electric vehicles would nearly eliminate emissions of carbon monoxide, as well as the compounds that help form ozone.

That may be an overly rosy assessment, however. A few researchers think their colleagues may have made optimistic assumptions about EV efficiency and how many owners will recharge batteries at night, when surplus electricity is available. If they're wrong, nitrous oxide emissions could increase. Thomas C. Austin, a senior partner at Sierra Research Inc., thinks they would double in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, boosting ozone levels.

WINTER-PROOF? Some Environmental Protection Agency researchers have similar concerns. An unreleased 1993 draft study obtained by BUSINESS WEEK also shows increases in nitrous oxide emissions in some cases. It concludes that CO2 emissions could rise substantially, too. Top agency officials initially tried to quash the controversial study. When powerful Democratic Representative John D. Dingell (Mich.) demanded its release, though, EPA brass pulled a U-turn. Richard D. Wilson, head of the EPA's Office of Mobile Sources, says the study will be released in the next few weeks.

It's not clear, either, that electric vehicles can operate in harsh winters such as the one the Northeast is enduring. Passenger-compartment heaters use a lot of precious electricity. And subfreezing temperatures can reduce battery power, too. Those factors can cut range by 20%, estimates Jeff Shimp, a senior engineer in the transportation department of Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., which maintains a fleet of seven electric minivans.

Carmakers and critics of electric vehicles contend that other fuel alternatives improve air quality nearly as much at far less cost. Vehicles that use compressed natural gas (CNG), for instance, run extremely clean. Quicker gains still would come from fixing or retiring old clunkers with broken emission equipment. A new inspection-and-maintenance program proposed by the EPA may help. But even that plan forces repairs only up to $450, not enough to fix some of the worst offenders.

In the end, lawmakers in the Northeast may be better off postponing the push toward electric vehicles. While scientists sort out whether EVs will actually bring fresh air, they can encourage inexpensive alternatives, such as CNG. And they won't risk angering consum-ers who buy cars that haven't quite got all of the bugs worked out.


AIR QUALITY gains in the Northeast may be minimal. Some studies indicate that coal- and oil-fired generating plants in the region, which will have to ramp up to power the cars, spew nearly as much of some pollutants as gas-powered cars. Natural-gas vehicles and incentives to retire old, high polluting cars might make more sense.

NEW BATTERIES that could extend electric cars' limited 50- to 100-mile driving range likely won't be commercially ready by the 1998 deadline, despite $260 million in federal and private spending over 4 years.

CONSUMER ACCEPTANCE may be weak. Short driving range aside, severe cold weather can disable electric vehicles entirely in the winter.

LAWMAKERS have yet to come up with consumer incentives needed to offset the higher price tags on electric cars, which are expected to cost from $2,000 to $15,000 more to manufacture than comparable gas-powered vehicles.


David Woodruff in Detroit, with Mary Beth Regan in Washington