GM sues over electric car rule

BY MATT NAUMAN 
mnauman@sjmercury.com

Santa Jose Mercury News
February 24th 2001

General Motors went to California court Friday to stop the state's Air Resources Board from implementing a law that would require automakers to start selling electric cars to reduce smog.

Last month, the air board scaled back the 10-year-old mandate, the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) regulation, to require car makers to produce between 4,450 and 15,450 electric cars starting in 2003. Those numbers would grow in 2007, 2012 and 2020, but they still represent much lower levels initially than the original law required.

Although it was a reduction from what was previously mandated, the air-board decision came as a surprise since the board's own staff had recommended an even greater scaling back of regulations, citing technological limitations.

GM maintains that the air board violated the state's Air Quality Act by not ``prudently and reasonably'' considering the mandate's economic impact, its environmental impact and the previous consumer experiences with electric cars, said Dennis Minano, GM's vice president of environment and energy. GM maintains that the mandate would have a ``negligible'' effect on cleaning California's air and that its cost would be many times higher than any other program ordered by the board.

GM had requested an administrative hearing on the matter, but it was denied Thursday by Mike Kenny, the board's executive officer, Minano said.

Facing a 30-day statute of limitations after the board's Jan. 25 decision, the air resource board's denial of GM's petition for a hearing ``left us no other venue to resolve our concerns,'' Minano said.

"They had a plan all along to sue us," said Jerry Martin, a board spokesman.

In a written statement, board Chairman Alan Lloyd said he was ``very disappointed that GM has chosen to put its future in the hands of its attorneys rather than in the hands of their outstanding engineers.''

Environmental groups weren't surprised by GM's legal action.

"It's one more unfortunate incident of auto companies kicking, screaming and dragging their feet rather than complying with the ZEV program," said Sandra Spelliscy a lawyer with the Planning and Conservation League, a statewide environmental group that lobbies policy-makers in Sacramento.

"Auto companies, and GM in particular, have been trying to kill this program for a long time," she said. "This is a last-ditch effort, and I don't think it will be successful."

Automakers would be allowed to meet the requirement by producing a variety of clean-air vehicles: some pure electric or fuel-cell cars that produced no emissions, some gas-electric hybrids that met certain partial-ZEV requirements and others that met a less-stringent standard and came with 150,000-mile, 15-year warranties and other traits.

GM executives also expressed concern that the regulations would allow automakers to use small Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs), which often resemble golf carts, to meet part of the mandate.

"We have concerns about the safety of those golf type of vehicles when they're put on California roadways with other small and large vehicles" Minano said. Two GM rivals, Ford Motor and DaimlerChrysler have purchased NEV manufacturers in recent months, possibly in anticipation of selling those types of vehicles in California.

While those vehicles can be operated on public roads with posted speed limits of 35 mph or less, they can only travel at a maximum speed of 25 mph, said Bob Purcell, the official in charge of GM's advanced vehicle technology program.

Since going on sale in California in the mid-1990s, electric cars and truck have found few buyers. GM, for instance, leased only 950 EV-1s here and in Arizona between 1996 and 2000. Some environmental groups, however, say that big automakers did little to promote the cars and even refused to provide them to people who wanted them.

Hybrid cars, which get power from a small gasoline engine, a battery pack and an electric motor, have proven more popular. Toyota, for instance, sold 5,500 units of its hybrid Prius sedan since it went on sale in July of 2000.

GM filed the suit in Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez. The corporation was joined in the suit by three dealers -- Fitzpatrick Chevrolet of Concord, Parker Robb Chevrolet of Walnut Creek and Saturn of Concord.

In a conference call with reporters, Minano and other GM executives repeatedly said the lawsuit shouldn't be viewed as the company fighting for less clean air.

"We support the clean-air goals," Minano said. "To us, the issue is not whether we will meet California's clean-air goals, but how should we meet them."

(Check Out www.electrifyingtimes.com for breaking story of GM's plans to crush some of its early model electric vehicles, specifically EV1's and S10 pick-ups.)