California air quality watchdogs may not force automobile manufacturers to sell electric cars from 2003, the New York Times (NYT) reported on Friday (8/12/00).

The NYT said that the California Air Resources Board has conceded that battery-powered cars are not yet practical and recommended on Friday de-emphasising fully electric vehicles and instead giving more encouragement to other types of ‘clean’ cars, such as hybrid vehicles that combine petrol and electric power.

"The staff is acknowledging the fact that there are a lot of other technologies that are moving faster than batteries," Jerry Martin, a board spokesman, told the NYT. "Our real mission here is to clean up vehicles and the air, and we can't do that with vehicles on paper. We need to get the vehicles on the road."

The new plan, if approved by the board next month, would represent the third time the requirements for electric vehicles have been relaxed since the programme began in 1990 as an effort to reduce California's smog. Whatever California does is expected to influence New York, Massachusetts and other states, the NYT said.

Under the existing standard, 4% of the cars offered for sale in the state by major auto makers starting in 2003 must have no tailpipe emissions, a standard that only battery-powered cars can now meet. Another 6% must have extremely low emissions.

Under the new proposal, the NYT says, only 2% of cars offered for sale would have to have ‘zero’ emissions, and even some of those could be hybrids that rely mainly on their batteries. Another 2% could be hybrid vehicles that rely heavily on petrol power, like the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, both of which are already on sale. The remaining 6% could be various vehicles with extremely low emissions, including some that use only petrol engines.

The new standard would require sales of as few as 4,650 electric vehicles in 2003, down from the current standard's 22,000, according to the agency's estimates.

The NYT said that auto companies, which have long argued that they could never sell 22,000 electric cars in a year, welcomed the shift.

"For the first time the board is acknowledging that there are huge obstacles to this electric-vehicle mandate and there are more promising technologies," Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group in Washington, told the newspaper. She said the new standards would still be tough to meet.

But the NYT said proponents of electric cars were dismayed. "We absolutely have to have a viable battery-electric program if we are to meet our air quality goals," said Bonnie Holmes- Gen, assistant vice president for government relations at the American Lung Association of California.

Auto makers argue that battery- powered cars are impractical because they cost $US20,000 more to manufacture than petrol- powered cars and can go only 50 to 100 miles or so before the batteries need recharging, which takes several hours. Environmental groups contend that no other cars are as clean and that the pressure on auto companies to develop electric vehicles had spurred innovation.

The NYT said that both sides said they were surprised by the scope of proposed changes because the board reaffirmed its commitment to the electric-vehicle programme in September. But the board then instructed its staff to meet with auto makers to discuss how to make the programme more practical. That resulted in Friday's recommendations.