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Big 3 Near Agreement To Develop Electric Cars

THE effort to develop a commercially viable battery-powered car could get a big boost within weeks, if the Big Three United States automakers follow through with plans to establish a joint electric vehicle consortium.

The clock is ticking for the auto industry. Starting in 1998, California legislators have mandated that 2 percent of every automaker's fleet be "zero-emission vehicles." For the moment, electric vehicles, or EVs, are the only practical way to meet that mandate. Yet current EV designs fall far short of consumer expectations.

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The lead-acid batteries used in the General Motors Impact prototype yielded barely 100 miles per charge, required up to eight hours to recharge, and would need replacement every 30,000 miles, at a cost of more than $3,000. That is one reason GM recently pulled the plug on plans to put the Impact into high-volume production. "I can't understand why a rational consumer would want to buy an EV," says William Pochiluk of Autofacts Inc., a consulting firm.

But come 1998, automakers will either have to find a way to sell EVs, nearly give them away, or abandon the California market, which accounts for almost 12 percent of US motor-vehicle sales.

For years, the Big Three were barred from cooperating with one another. But revised federal anti-trust laws permit the domestic manufacturers to establish "pre-competitive" consortiums devoted to advanced research. One of these is the US Advanced Battery Consortium (USABC).

Last year, USABC handed out its first development contract, for $18.5 million, to Energy Conversion Devices Inc. Initial research suggests the Michigan firm's "Ovonic" nickel metal hydride battery could deliver about 250 miles of range per charge - or theoretically as much as 400 miles. Made of non-toxic, recyclable chemicals, the Ovonic battery can be charged in 15 minutes. The battery also might last the life of the vehicle, markedly reducing operating expenses.

USABC has since awarded grants for research on other advanced-battery formulations, such as Lithium Polymer, which may someday allow EVs to deliver the range, acceleration, and creature comforts (air conditioning, etc.) found in conventional internal-combustion engines.

But with individual EV programs dragging on, and no clear solution at hand, General Motors Corporation, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler Corporation officials have quietly been discussing ways to expand their joint EV efforts.

When talks began in December, the Big Three proposed a modest venture to share research on the development of high-performance motors, lightweight body panels, and other EV components. But the focus quickly broadened, and they may now announce a project in which they will design and even build EVs at a jointly operated plant. "As you can imagine, getting these behemoths to agree on anything isn't easy, especially the idea of working on a full vehicle," says John R. Wallace, Ford's director of EV Technolo gy Development.

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Early this month, Ford Chairman Harold "Red" Poling sped up the process, announcing that he hoped the details of the proposed consortium would be put together by the end of June. Mr. Poling's timing took almost everyone by surprise, including those negotiating the project. But it has gotten things moving.

"Something will happen this month," Mr. Wallace says.

One hurdle for the consortium could be the anti-trust law. It will need to be stretched to allow the Big Three to jointly assemble automobiles. A well-placed industry lobbyist in Washington suggests that the automakers have been working to win government support in meetings with President Clinton and administration officials. "The fix has got to be in," the lobbyist says, "otherwise, I can't believe Poling would have been so confident."

A joint project would likely mean significant savings for GM, Ford, and Chrysler. They could pick and choose the best technology each has developed so far. GM, for example, has come up with fast and highly efficient motors. Chrysler has developed a "regenerative" braking system that can capture energy and use it to recharge batteries.

But developing the right battery will be vital. Until that happens, automakers may have to rely on financial incentives to make EVs more attractive to customers.

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