Sacramento, CA óIn a desperate attempt to meet California's electric vehicle (EV) mandate by the 2003 model year, automakers announced recently that they will focus their efforts on the sale of tiny, battery-powered vehicles, some of which are no bigger than a golf cart.
Ford Motor Co. said that it plans to sell at least two types of electric cars: the Th!nk City, a 9.8-foot-long two-seater with a top speed of 56 mph; and the Th!nk Neighbor, an undisguised golf cart with a top speed of about 25 mph.
Similarly, DaimlerChrysler Corp. is believed to be preparing to comply with the mandate through its purchase of Global Electric MotorCars LLC (Fargo, ND), which makes small electric vehicles for use in gated communities, military bases, industrial parks, and universities. The company's product line includes two- and four-passenger cars powered by 72V electric motors and six 12V batteries.
General Motors, meanwhile, has refused to follow the golf cart strategy. The automotive giant recently filed suit against the California Air Resources Board in an effort to get the agency to "consider better alternatives" than battery-powered cars. "They are mandating a technology whose time has come and gone," says Donn Walker, a GM spokesman.
Automotive experts say that the moves by Ford and DaimlerChrysler are likely to be repeated by other major automakers, most of which are now scrambling for a plan after California's Air Resources Board (CARB) announced in late January that there would be no eleventh-hour reprieve for the automakers. "Unless there's a gigantic subsidy, there's no way for automakers to economically meet the mandate," says David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research (Ann Arbor, MI) "This is the best solution for now."
California's mandate calls for automakers to build and sell a combined maximum of 15,450 pure electric vehicles. Automakers can meet the mandate by selling so-called small "neighborhood" vehicles (like the Th!nk Neighbor), or they can sell reduced numbers of "city-type" vehicles (like the Th!nk City). If they opt to build full-sized, freeway-capable EVs, they would need to sell only 4,450 vehicles, the state said.
In reaching its January decision, CARB board members repeated the agency's position that electric vehicles are a necessity in dealing with California's air pollution problems. The agency says that more than half of the state's smog-forming pollutants come from motor vehicles, and that so-called "zero emission" vehicles are the state's best bet in dealing with the problem.
Automakers had hoped, however, that California would modify its position at the January meeting, just as it had in 1996 and 1998. Instead, the board held fast to its original mandate, and called for automakers to begin production of EVs in the 2003 model year.
Ford's Th!nk Neighbor: 25-mph vehicle will satisfy California's EV mandate--for now.
Although most major automakers are expected to comply with the ruling, many have not yet announced how they will do it. General Motors discontinued production of its EV1 electric vehicle two years ago. And because the tooling from its Lansing, MI-based plant has been placed in storage, executives from the firm say they don't know if they want to revive production. Similarly, GM won't say if it plans to resurrect its Chevy S-10 electric pickup. Nor will Honda, Nissan, Ford, or Toyota announce plans for their full-sized electric vehicles, most of which have been discontinued.
Ultimately, however, automakers realize they must find a full-sized solution for the California mandate. During the recent hearings, CARB's 11-member board clearly stated that golf carts and similar vehicles could only serve as a temporary compliance measure. Credits for sale of those vehicles will be ratcheted downward in 2004 and nearly phased out in 2006.
Automakers say they are concerned because full-sized electric vehicles have up to now been a dismal failure in the marketplace. Only 3,500 such vehicles have been sold since California's demonstration program was launched during the 1990s. General Motors is said to have lost hundreds of millions of dollars on its EV1, which reportedly cost the company approximately $78,000 per car to make but sold for $33,995. Similarly, Toyota's RAV4 cost more than $100,000 per car to make, but sold for $42,000.
Most engineers are concerned because they say that no viable battery technology exists on the horizon to solve California's electric vehicle dilemma. "California is applying the 'Disney method' of engineering," said one automotive engineer disappointed by the ruling. "They assume that if you wish for technology, your wish will come true."