GM pulling plug on its electric vehicles, once heralded as car of the future


Tuesday, April 8th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ When General Motors charged up its first electric-powered vehicle in the late 1980s, it was heralded as the ``car of the future.''

California officials saw it as salvation for their smog-choked cities and quickly made the new technology the centerpiece of their toughest-in-the-nation emissions rules.

But now, more than a decade later, the state is retreating from those strict pollution policies, and dozens of GM's electric EV1s are lined up behind a chain-link fence in Van Nuys. The Big Three automakers have all abandoned their electric-battery vehicles and are focusing instead on low-polluting hybrids and other technology.

GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss said the company is taking back the remaining 375 of its 1,000 pioneering EV1s as their leases expire because it can't supply parts to repair them. Some will end up in museums or research labs. Others will be used for spare parts.

It's a long way from a program once touted as GM's clean air solution, and it comes as California again rewrites its once-ambitious zero emissions vehicle rules. The plan launched in 1990 would have required 10 percent of cars for sale in the state this year be non-polluting. Today, state regulators are asking that 10 percent be at least low-pollution by 2005, but even that is on hold for now.

Carmakers, who have fought the rules, say the market should dictate what they build, not state regulators.

To the drivers who embraced the technology, the loss of the EV1 is a heartbreaking prelude to the end of battery-powered vehicles.

``They've gone from being regulators to just asking politely, 'Gee, industry, would you do this?''' said Greg Hanssen, of the Production Electric Vehicle Drivers Coalition, which has lobbied for more battery-powered cars. ``To us driving battery electric vehicles, we're saying, 'Hey, you've left us hanging out to dry.'''

It was only after seeing the promise of the first GM electric car that California launched its ambitious zero emission vehicle program to help clean up America's smoggiest skies. New York and Massachusetts followed suit, but they and other states have been watching to see how California's rule-making plays out. In New York, the latest rules require 10 percent of cars sold starting in 2004 be low-polluting, rather than non-polluting.

Major automakers say they stopped production because the vehicles were limited to a range of about 100 miles, required lengthy recharges and were costly. Leases ran about $400 a month, though California state credits could cut that in half; the battery-electric version of Toyota's RAV4 sold for about $40,000.

Honda Vice President Ben Knight said the company concluded that the limited popularity of the electric car wouldn't effectively contribute to cleaner air.

``I think it is a small group that is very interested in that particular technology,'' Knight said.

The company is now focusing on its hybrid models, natural gas-powered vehicles and fuel cell program. It plans to have five fuel cell models, which run on the electricity from a chemical reaction between oxygen and hydrogen and have twice the range of electric cars, in the Los Angeles city fleet by June.

Supporters of battery-powered vehicles say the auto companies never gave the cars a chance and didn't do enough to improve the technology or promote them _ claims automakers dispute.

S. David Freeman, chairman of the California Consumer Power and Financing Authority, said there were long waiting lists of people who wanted the cars when he ran the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

``Back in 1990 when the Air Resources Board laid down the zero emission rule there were no electric cars, it was a dream. Now that the dream is a reality, they're prepared to abandon it,'' he said.

There's a chance when the board meets later this month that the regulations will be rewritten to encourage electric vehicle production, and EV1 drivers are hoping GM _ which spent over $1 billion on its electric car program _ will be persuaded to extend leases or lease cars that were previously returned.

But drivers who embraced the technology are not counting on a new lease on the life of their aging electric car.

Hanssen surrendered his EV1 when the lead expired and bought an electric Toyota RAV4. Honda is extending leases for some drivers on its electric-battery car, though only about 100 of the original 300 are still being driven.

``There's a chance (the board) will come out with some juicy incentive to keep these cars on the road,'' Hanssen said, but he add, ``it wouldn't be all too surprising if they just scrapped the vehicles.''