Pull the Plug on the Electric Car Mandate : Transportation: Evidence grows that it won’t work and might even add to air pollution.

<i> Kenneth P. Green is a senior analyst of environmental policy and director of transportation and air quality projects at the Reason Foundation. </i>

It doesn’t take an Edison to see that the case against California’s electric vehicle mandate is growing stronger day by day. The most recent study on the subject, released today by the Reason Foundation, shows that electric vehicles rank among the least cost-effective solutions to the problem of automotive air pollution. The Reason study points out that consumers don’t want what electrics have to offer: limited range, lengthy refueling and a lack of horsepower. Recent information from Chrysler and GM spotlights how undesirable these features are.

Chrysler’s electric mini-van, we’re told, will produce a range of only 60 to 70 miles on a charge, with a battery pack costing roughly $5,000 that needs replacing every three years. Even the poster car of electric vehicle fans, the much-touted GM Impact, has a range of only 70 to 90 miles on a charge and met only 83% of the transportation needs of a real-world test audience. That might be tolerable for a household’s second set of wheels except for one little hitch: a premium price as high as $40,000.

But the electrics won’t be priced that high, since nobody would buy them. Instead, auto-makers will have to price the electric cars competitively with gas-burners, spreading the loss taken on electric vehicle production across the rest of their fleet. And that leads to the biggest irony of all, the prospect that the introduction of electric cars might actually lead to an overall increase in air pollution. The increased prices for new gas-powered cars will almost certainly cause people to postpone the replacement of older, more polluting cars. That will keep those cars on the road longer, either canceling out any air pollution reductions from the electric cars, or increasing the total air pollution generated by our vehicle fleet.


And it gets worse. The advanced battery consortium, an industry coalition, won’t have anything better than lead-acid batteries available in time for the mandate, which is scheduled to take effect in California in 1998. A recent study out of Carnegie-Mellon University points out that the use of available lead-acid batteries in electric vehicles could well bring back lead pollution as an air-quality problem. Using today’s lead-acid batteries, an electric car would produce 60 times more lead pollution per vehicle mile than a regular gas-burner using leaded gasoline.

Our state’s pollution control authority has to stop thinking of itself as some kind of homespun Japanese MITI that can pick and promote winners in the automotive marketplace. It isn’t, and it can’t. Conspiracy theories aside, the simple fact is that if Detroit’s big three could make a profitable electric vehicle that consumers wanted to buy, they’d be making it at the behest of their own stockholders. They’ve said all along that they can’t, and there is growing evidence backing up that assessment.

The bottom line is that the electric vehicle mandate is a bad plan. Let’s pull the plug on this “Star Wars” approach to clean air and get on with the important business at hand using methods that will get the job done. Parking pricing, roadway pricing and mass-transit privatization are the lowest-cost and most equitable solutions to the air pollution problems we face today. We need to get that message through to our driving public, who prefer science-fiction visions of electric super-cars to pay-as-you-go auto-use charges, and to our policy-makers, who would rather play at industrial policy than implement effective market-based measures that might cut their budgets and cost them some clout.