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Winter 1996
City Journal Winter 1996.
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The Electric Lemon
Kenneth Silber
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Later this decade, New York State environmental rules will require automakers and dealers to begin selling vehicles that are exorbitantly expensive, don’t work very well, and aren’t that good for the environment. Welcome to the era of the electric car.

The 1990 federal Clean Air Act required states to devise plans to reduce air pollution. New York is one of only three states—California and Massachusetts are the others—that decided to mandate “zero-emission vehicles,” or electric cars. In 1993 the Cuomo administration adopted regulations identical to California's, requiring that zero-emission vehicles constitute 2 percent of all new cars sold in the state starting in 1998, a quota that gradually rises until it reaches 10 percent—about 60,000 cars a year—in 2003. With the purest Alice-in-Wonderland logic, if New Yorkers balk at buying electric cars, the state will fine automakers $5,000 for every vehicle by which they miss the quota.

But electric cars are far from ready for the mass market. Despite decades of research and development, no one has been able to develop batteries that provide nearly as much energy as a tank of gasoline: typically, electric cars can travel only 50 to 80 miles before requiring hours of recharging. The vehicles accelerate more slowly than ordinary cars and have trouble climbing steep hills.

They're expensive, too. Some electric prototypes carry six-figure price tags; even with mass production, they'll cost thousands of dollars more than ordinary cars. Even those who don't buy the cars will pay. In California, electric utilities have pushed for rate hikes to subsidize construction of charging stations. And to recoup their losses on electric vehicles, automakers may have to raise prices across the board.

The cars could end up hurting, rather than helping, the environment. By pricing some consumers out of the new car market, higher car prices would keep older cars, responsible for the vast bulk of air pollution, on the road. Today's new gasoline-powered cars emit an astonishing 96 percent less pollution than new cars did in 1970. Generating electricity for the so-called zero-emission cars would increase emissions at power plants, too.

The Pataki administration, pressed by an odd alliance of environmentalists and utilities, has thus far kept the requirement in place. Meanwhile, California, whose smog problem is far worse than New York's, is considering backing off from its electric-car mandate. Electric cars may one day become commercially viable. But it is economic and environmental folly to force consumers to buy battery-powered Edsels built under a government deadline.
 

 

 


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