Still facing a zero-emissions mandate in California, automakers have offered to pay for a test that would gauge consumer willingness to buy electric vehicles.
Under the plan, an independent group would be set up to manage the sale and promotion of electric vehicles in a single market area for at least three years.
If approved by state regulators, the test probably would take place in Los Angeles. Electric vehicles would be offered by every dealer in that market that represents a maker of electric vehicles. Companies that don't have electric vehicles to sell would contribute to a fund that would promote them.
The automakers have offered this fair market test as an alternative to California's plan to require that a percentage of each manufacturer's vehicles be zero-emission cars and trucks within two years.
Even though California regulators moved this month to ease the requirement, 'We still think it is a high hurdle,' said Josephine Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Its biggest member, General Motors, failed in its effort to lease an electric vehicle to Californians.
The state's original plan was to phase in a zero-emissions-vehicle requirement, beginning in 1998.
In the 2003 model year, 10 percent of each manufacturer's California sales was to be electric vehicles. But regulators have had to delay and revise the plan several times.
On Dec. 8 the staff of the California Air Resources Board recommended still more changes. The biggest would be to allow carmakers to substitute more hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles and more alternative-fueled vehicles for the electric-only cars and trucks they are supposed to sell.
The number of pure electrics could be as low as 2 percent for each company.
But, in an apparent concession to environmental groups, the staff also suggested that the percentage of required zero-emissions vehicles rise to 16 percent by 2018.
'They are stepping on the brake and pressing on the accelerator at the same time,' said Steve Douglas, director of environmental programs for the manufacturers' alliance.
'It doesn't make any sense.'
Cooper said the staff may be hoping that the higher future targets can be met with fuel-cell-powered vehicles.
In the nearer term, even with the added flexibility recommended by the staff, carmakers would be expected to sell about 9,300 electrics and nearly 300,000 hybrids in California annually in the 2005 model year, Douglas said.
Individual companies are analyzing the details. But Cooper said, 'The number of vehicles is still a big number.'
The alliance is awaiting the board's reaction to its proposed market test.
Board votes are expected on recommendations and alternatives on Jan. 25.
The automakers also promised to find other ways to reduce vehicle emissions while the test is being conducted so a further postponement of the electric vehicle mandate would not lead to dirtier air.