Big Three considering collaboration on electric car to meet 1998 deadline


In what would be an extraordinary collaboration by Detroit's automakers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are discussing jointly building an electric car to meet the requirements of the clean-air law first enacted in California and recently adopted by several Northeastern states, including Maryland.

Officials of the companies said yesterday that they were considering the project because of impending deadlines.

The state laws require that by the 1998 model year, 2 percent of every auto company's sales be "zero-emission vehicles," presumably electric cars. Because no such vehicles are currently mass-produced, Detroit is not certain how to build them.

To start development of a new vehicle now and have it ready for the 1998 model year was characterized as "warp speed" by Jason Vines, a Chrysler spokesman.

"It only makes sense for car makers to cooperate," said William Sessa, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, which created the program. A collaborative effort in Detroit "would follow the example set in other automotive capitals, like Stuttgart and Tokyo," he said.

The discussions, which Mr. Vines described as "advanced," cover a range of possibilities -- from sharing components such as batteries, electronic-control gear and other specialized parts to jointly building full drivetrains or even the entire vehicles.

That could be the Impact, a zippy two-seater that GM developed and said until this past December that it planned to mass-produce but then postponed. Or it could be another vehicle. Ford has a prototype electric cargo van called the Ecostar, based on the current Aerostar gasoline-powered models. And Chrysler builds a van it calls the TEVan, an electric version of its Dodge Caravan, which some electric-utility companies have bought as demonstration vehicles.

But all three of these vehicles have limited range and are expected to cost far more than traditional gasoline cars to produce. The Dodge TEVan, for example, is priced at $120,000 -- compared with a range of $16,000 to $23,000 for the gasoline model.

"There is an awful lot of planning and development that has to go on," said Helen O. Petrauskas, Ford vice president for environmental and safety engineering. "With relatively low volume and a huge investment needed in all that new technology, you can see where there would be some advantage to working together."

Maryland legislators passed a law last week adopting the California standards, including the "zero-emission" requirements, but the measure -- like one adopted in New Jersey -- takes effect only when neighboring states take similar actions.

New York, Massachusetts and Maine have passed laws adopting the California program. A federal district court has thrown out New York's action after a protest by GM over issues including whether a state could embrace the California program for cars without also adopting the rules for gasoline.

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