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The future looks electric

Bill Sessa has driven the electric car of California's future, and to his surprise, it felt much like the cars of today. "It has very high torque. The same acceleration as a good sports car _ it'll throw you back in the seat. The person in the next lane would never know you were driving a car with an electric motor for an engine," he said.

Except, "they don't make any noise. The hardest part to get used to was what gear to be in."

With an eye on the tachometer, Sessa learned how to shift a noiseless car and took two electric Volkswagen prototypes, a Golf and a Jetta, for test drives on city streets. For comparison, he also rode as a passenger in General Motors' new electric Impact and tried out prototype cars that run on low-pollution fuels such as methanol and natural gas.

"In almost every case," he said, "they behave just like any car that you drive every day."

Sessa, the communications director of the California Air Resources Board, was curious about these cars because his agency is requiring the auto industry to mass-produce them.

Out of southern California's famous smog, from its densely populated valleys surrounded by mountains and clouded with car exhaust, are coming the strictest pollution standards in the world. They require California's cars of the future to be 50 to 80 percent less polluting than the cars of today, which emit about one-eighth the pollutants of cars built 20 years ago. They require service stations to offer a methanol mix, derived from wood alcohol or natural gas, along with gasoline, and automakers to build engines that run on methanol. They require the introduction of electric vehicles that emit no exhaust at all.

The new standards, adopted last fall by the air resources board, require that 2 percent of the vehicles sold in California by 1998 must be ZEVs: zero emissions vehicles. By 2003, 10 percent of California's new vehicles must be ZEVs.

Already, these standards have accelerated research into alternative fuels and automobiles. There have been agreements between automakers to share research, between battery makers and automakers to develop better electric engines, between car and gas companies to produce cars fueled by natural gas. An industry that has built but not produced electric cars for the past 20 years is now predicting that commercial models will be rolling off assembly lines within five years.

Sessa estimates the California standards alone will require the production of 40,000 to 100,000 electric cars a year. They are likely to be cars whose batteries are plugged in and recharged overnight, lacking the range for long trips but fine for daily urban driving.

Strictly speaking, electric cars are not pollution-free because they draw energy from power plants, most of which burn fossil fuels. What they can do is reduce fossil fuel byproducts in urban areas, an important goal in California.

Because its climate and topography are particularly suitable for producing smog, California's pollution standards have often been stricter than federal standards. While the Environmental Protection Agency bases regulations on existing technology, Sessa said, "one of the car manufacturers said what we do with our standards is force invention. And in effect, we do."

Automakers argued California's new standards would force them to change their technology too rapidly, but once those rules were adopted, they decided not to risk losing their market shares in the nation's most populous state.

Anticipating the demand for electric vehicles, General Motors announced early last year that it would proceed with production of the Impact, a small electric car that accelerates from zero to 60 miles per hour in eight seconds and has a driving range of 125 miles.

Volkswagen, a leader in the development of all-electric cars, is also testing a hybrid diesel-electric car that it says is capable of going 100 miles on a gallon of fuel.

Ford has announced plans to start building electric vans and to put 2,500 alternate-fuel vehicles on the road by late 1992.

"There's no question" that California's new standards affected the pace of these programs, Ford spokesman Nick Sharkey said. "When the standard's set, we have to meet it."

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