ELECTRIC VAN PROMISING, AS FAR AS IT GOES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Is this the drive of the future? Hit the accelerator, and instead of a muffled roar there's a high-pitched whine, almost like a jet plane.

That's the sound when you put the pedal to the metal in the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s electric-powered Chrysler minivan, one of four the utility owns.

The van is low slung, and you had better steer clear of deep potholes and commercial car washes.

Yet the thing goes. No jack-rabbit starts, but this is no golf cart either.

"They'll fly," says Les Stephenson, who is in charge of maintaining BG&E;'s fleet of alternative-fuel vehicles. He says the electric van can reach speeds of 80 mph on highways.

Sounds great, right? Problem is, it will travel only about 70 miles at a more sedate 55 mph before the batteries have to be recharged -- plugged in for up to eight hours.

And if you're still sold on being the first on your block to go electric, consider the price: $100,000, at least five times what a gasoline-powered Chrysler minivan costs.

To reduce urban smog, officials in states from California to Maryland are pushing Detroit to produce electric cars and trucks, which proponents tout as the pollution-free vehicle of tomorrow.

That effort received a boost earlier this month, when a commission representing 13 East Coast states, including Maryland, decided to seek a federal mandate for California-style emissions limits on all cars and light trucks sold from Maine to Virginia. Part of the plan, modeled on California's clean-car program, would require that one in 50 vehicles sold by 1998 produce no emissions.

That decision delighted environmentalists, electric vehicle entrepreneurs and utilities, which hope to sell more electricity and also to avoid more costly pollution controls on their power plants. But it distresses the auto industry, which insists that the snappy new plug-in cars and trucks it is developing at great expense won't be ready to sell by 1998, because of their limited range and sky-high prices.

Meanwhile, a draft Environmental Protection Agency study suggests that electric vehicles may be the wrong tool for cleaning up smog. The pollution produced by generating more power to run the vehicles may offset their lack of emissions, according to the study's preliminary findings.

A recent spin around town in BG&E;'s electric van reveals the promise of this new technology, as well as the huge hurdles it must overcome to win public acceptance.

The minivan is one of 10 produced by the Chesapeake Consortium, an alliance formed two years ago by Chrysler, Westinghouse Electric Corp., BG&E; and the state of Maryland to develop salable electric vehicles. Used to give demonstration drives, the van also has been assigned to utility technicians making service calls in western Baltimore County, where BG&E;'s marketing and service operations are based.

On the outside, the van looks like any other. But under the hood is a 100-horsepower, alternating-current motor and a flat black box that serves as the "controller," feeding power to the motor in response to pressure on the accelerator.

Beneath the van, instead of a tailpipe, muffler and catalytic converters, there are 30 nickel-iron batteries, weighing 1,640 pounds in all. That load under the chassis gives the van a heavy feel and reduces ground clearance to about 4 inches, meaning drivers must beware of potholes and speed bumps.

For all that, the van gives a smooth and quiet ride. So quiet, in fact, that it had to be equipped with a back-up alarm after it almost ran over a BG&E; mechanic. And with special low-resistance tires, the vehicle coasts "like there's no tomorrow," says Mr. Stephenson.

Another plus: Its electric heater begins pumping out warm air as soon as the van is started. There is no wait on icy cold mornings for the engine to warm up.

"They're prototypes," says David P. Brown, director of BG&E;'s marketing research and field services. "They're up and down, but they've worked out."

The participating companies plan to use what they've learned from these first 10 vans to produce a new generation of lighter, cheaper and even more reliable electric vehicles.

"We believe that they're economically competitive in the transit market, for buses and school buses, and in the fleet market," says Timothy Winter, business development manager for automotive systems at Westinghouse.

A big selling point for electric vehicles is their low operating cost, just 1 or 2 cents per mile compared with 3 to 4 cents for equivalent gasoline-powered vehicles.

Moreover, there are far fewer moving parts: no carburetor or fuel injection to gum up, no transmission to wear out and no muffler or catalytic converter to replace.

"Everything is here to make a viable industry," asserts Arvind V. Rajan, vice president for marketing of Solectria Corp., based in Arlington, Mass. The firm produces the Force, an electrified Geo Metro. Early versions, with lead-acid batteries, could go up to 70 miles between recharging, but a newer model, using nickel-cadmium power cells, is capable of 150 miles at 50 mph, says Mr. Rajan.

Short-range attraction

Potomac Electric Power Co. in Washington, D.C., has a Force for demonstration drives, and the utility plans to buy four converted Chevrolet S-10 pickup trucks from Solectria for use in its service fleet, according to Brad Johnson, manager of corporate planning.

Many believe that electric vehicles will be attractive to businesses for their short-range transportation fleets.

Aiming at that market, Chrysler got the jump on the rest of the auto industry by converting its popular minivans to electric propulsion, while Ford and General Motors took more time in a bid to develop brand new electric vehicles. Chrysler sold 50 of its TEVans last year, most of them to utilities, and hopes to sell another 50 nationwide this year, says Chris Preuss, a company spokesman.

Ford, meanwhile, is building a demonstration fleet of 105 Ecostar vans, adapting the Escort van it sells in Europe, and plans to lease 81 of them around the country. One customer is Potomac Edison in Frederick, and another is United Parcel Service, which plans to try it for deliveries in the Washington area, says Pam Kueber, a Ford spokeswoman.

The Ecostar is a step ahead of the Chrysler van because the sodium sulfur batteries Ford has developed are lighter -- the pack weighs 780 pounds -- and give the vehicle a range close to 100 miles, says Ms. Kueber.

General Motors, however, has created the biggest stir in automotive circles with its Impact, a peppy lightweight two-seater capable of hitting 60 mph in 8 seconds.

Such a sporty vehicle might appeal to the general public, at least as a second or commuter car. But after proudly previewing the Impact at the 1990 Los Angeles auto show, GM has put its electric-vehicle program on the back burner. The company plans to distribute 50 Impacts for tryout later this spring, but it makes no promises about future development. In similar fashion, other American carmakers have begun bad-mouthing the prospects for electrics.

The vehicles are unlikely to sell well because of the limited range and the high cost of their batteries, industry spokesmen say. They can't go 300 miles or more between refuelings, as can a gas-powered car, and their batteries make them far more expensive than comparable internal-combustion vehicles.

Prices for electrics are staggering, indeed. Ford is offering its Ecostars on a 30-month lease for $100,000, "and it's not even beginning to cover our costs," says Ms. Kueber, the company spokeswoman.

GM has not put a price on its Impact, and Solectria's Force costs anywhere from $26,000 to $60,000.

Mass production will enable manufacturers to reduce battery prices substantially. Solectria hopes to sell its Force for $15,000, according to Mr. Rajan, but that is still almost twice the cost of a gas-powered Metro.

"People want electric vehicles," acknowledges Ford's Ms. Kueber, noting marketing surveys indicating high interest in California. But, she adds, "no one has invented a battery that saves the day."

It could be six or seven years, at least, until batteries can be produced cheaply enough to make electric vehicles competitive in price, industry spokesmen say.

And there is also the cost of installing recharging stations; newer homes might have good enough wiring so cars could be recharged in four hours or so, but rewiring older homes could cost $800 to $2,000, according to Mr. Brown of BG&E.;

Not ready

Some critics accuse the automakers of foot-dragging, to get out from under the 1998 deadline set by California for making 2 percent of its vehicles electric, and the 2003 deadline for up to 10 percent. Critics note that Detroit also complained it couldn't sell cars with air bags and catalytic converters, both of which are now standard equipment.

The U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, a coalition of the Big Three plus the electric utility industry and the federal government, is spending $260 million over three years on contracts to develop a variety of promising new batteries. But none is likely to be ready in time for production by 1998, says John R. Wallace, a Ford executive serving as spokesman for the battery group.

It isn't just carmakers saying electric vehicles aren't ready yet. Dr. Hugh Ellis, a pollution expert at Johns Hopkins University, concluded in a study of California's clean-car program that battery technology is unlikely to improve quickly enough to produce zero-emission cars and trucks for the Northeast by 1998.

"For the near term, electric vehicles may make sense in some areas, and that's debatable," says Mr. Preuss, the Chrysler spokesman. "But they are not the answer to the clean-air problem."

He suggests that internal combustion vehicles fueled by compressed natural gas are a more realistic, clean-car alternative. Their emissions are very low, and they go farther than electrics -- up to 180 miles between refuelings.

BG&E; has a fleet of 130 natural gas-powered vehicles. But as clean as they are, they are not zero-emission trucks.

Environmentalists, utility executives and some state officials insist that the only way electric vehicles will be produced quickly is if regulatory pressure is maintained on the auto industry.

The next six months will tell. California's Air Resources Board is -- reviewing whether electric vehicles will be ready by 1998, and a decision by that state to delay or stick with its deadline will affect East Coast states like Maryland, that are following California's lead.

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