Electric Cars: Turning on Another Light : Their range is limited, and they aren't fast, but they're worth trying

Some cars prowling Southern California roads need nothing more than a pit crew to enter Indy-class races. Most need a lot more than that. Now comes the electric car. Today's models are too cumbersome to qualify even for a race up a freeway ramp, but they sure run clean. And Southern California, where roughly half of the air pollution comes from cars and trucks, needs something like electric cars to get rid of smog.

That's what Los Angeles Councilman Marvin Braude had in mind a couple of years ago when he called the city's Department of Water and Power and told it to get some electric cars into the region as fast as possible.

Now DWP and Southern California Edison have teamed up to invest $7 million to finish developing an electric sedan and to guarantee a market for 10,000 of them by 1995.

The contract with a Swedish company, Clean Air Transport, calls for cars with a range of 150 miles between battery charges and that will reach 30 m.p.h. in 9 seconds. They also will have auxiliary power units to keep them rolling long enough to get to an electric plug if the driver miscalculates the power he has left.

Washington and other national governments, and companies as big as General Motors, have tinkered with electric cars for years without actually going into production. One reason is that battery design was slow to improve for a long time and then stopped improving at all. To step into a role as the family car, electric-powered vehicles need batteries that will give them more range.

A potential market for 10,000 cars, plus the idea of having all of Southern California as a test range, is enough to provide a tremendous incentive for designers to reach for breakthroughs on range. Although it will not happen for a long time, Southern California eventually would need to generate vastly greater amounts of power to support a fleet big enough to make a serious contribution to clean air. DWP and Edison together could recharge the batteries in 1 million electric cars without expanding generating capacity. But the South Coast Air Quality Management District thinks it will take something over 6 million electric cars to make the difference in smog.

Still, Southern California must try to make electric cars work for it. Even counting the pollution from power plants that would keep their batteries charged, electric vehicles would leave 98% fewer hydrocarbons in the air and more than 83% fewer nitrogen oxides, both basic ingredients in smog. Those are goals worth working hard to reach.

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