There's a right way and a wrong way to do everything. Public officials at the state and federal levels have chosen the wrong way in much of their legislation to reduce emissions from cars. Specifically, mandates that force automakers to develop electric cars before battery technology is up to the challenge are dead wrong, and counter productive.
Developing the batteries for electric cars requires technology breakthroughs. That's a task for engineering, not legislation. You can't legislate new technology. Yet, as Charles J. Murray's cover story for this issue shows, that's exactly what state and federal governments have done. The result: false hopes for the public and heavy financial losses for the automotive industry.
It's not that legislation can't help. Of course it helps, by setting a vision and encouraging innovation. But, when legislators establish unreasonable timetables--and then threaten fines if the timetables aren't met--they go too far.
That's exactly what happened with electric-car batteries. And the worst thing is, some government officials knew they were wrong when they did it. Or should have known.
Case in point: California hired consultants from Charles River Associates and DRI/McGraw Hill to study the economic consequences of adopting mandates for zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) and other alternative-fuel cars. Among their conclusions: "Imposing mandates and subsidies to promote the purchase of electric vehicles and alternate-fuel vehicles, in addition to California vehicle and fuel standards, will hurt the economy of California, reduce tax revenues, and cause losses in California jobs."
What's more, the report said, "there is virtually no reduction in average hydrocarbon emissions...and only a small reduction in (nitrous oxide) emissions...."
California (followed by New York and Massachusetts) mandated ZEVs anyway, threatening heavy fines on automakers who couldn't comply during 1998. That's arrogance. That's ignorance. And the fact that they recently postponed the effective date to 2003 doesn't make it any better.
The legislation is wrong. Now, who is going to fine the government?