IN a move with global implications for the future of the automobile, the agency that regulates smog in California is reviewing a plan that would force carmakers to sell electric vehicles later this decade.
The California Air Resources Board (ARB) will hold two days of hearings here, starting today, on whether to move forward with its mandate that large numbers of exhaust-free cars be sold in the state by 1998.
An ARB staff report says battery technology is advancing fast enough to allow the goals to be met. But automakers contend that electric vehicles are still impractical and too expensive to mass produce. They want a delay in the ARB timetable.
The outcome will be closely watched from Detroit to Tokyo. California is determining how fast much of the world moves away from a century-long reliance on the internal-combustion engine - with implications for carmakers, oil companies, transportation firms, and regional economies.
Already, 12 Northeastern states are talking about adopting quotas for electric vehicles similar to California's. Japan, Europe, and Canada are eyeing the ARB's actions as well.
``It literally has worldwide impact,'' says Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California.
Under the ARB's rules, adopted in 1990 to help clean up the nation's dirtiest skies, 2 percent of the vehicles sold each year in California by major manufacturers - an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 cars - must be electric, beginning in 1998. The volume increases to 5 percent in 2001 and 10 percent in 2003.
Carmakers failing to meet the mandates would lose their certification to sell vehicles in the state - one of the world's great auto bazaars. The ``big three'' in Detroit, as well as Honda, Nissan, Mazda, and Toyota in Japan, would be forced to market electric cars first. Most other manufacturers would have until 2003.
The meeting today and tomorrow will review whether technology has progressed enough to meet the mandates. The board could eventually delay deadlines or make other changes.
The ARB staff report argued that battery technology is developing at a rate that will produce a ``commercially viable electric vehicle by 1998.''
It maintains that current versions of some batteries already generate enough power to run a car 80 to 100 miles between recharges, which would accommodate the commutes of nearly 85 percent of Californians. By 1998, it predicts driving ranges of 200 miles.
The review also contends that the ownership costs for electric cars will eventually be comparable to conventional vehicles. The money saved on gas and oil and tuneups will offset higher battery costs. Mass production will eventually bring sticker prices down.
BUT even some supporters of electric vehicles consider the ARB's analysis overly optimistic. The auto industry considers it fantasy. Although all three US carmakers have produced or are working on prototypes, they say they are a long way from producing a cost-efficient, practical car that consumers will buy.
``We can't produce one by 1998,'' says Richard Klimisch of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. ``You need to build the vehicle around the battery, which we don't have yet, and design should have started six months ago.''
The industry estimates it would cost $10,000 to $15,000 more to build an electric vehicle. To offset the costs, it argues, prices on all other vehicles would have to be raised. The result would be a drop in new car sales. People would hang onto their older, more polluting vehicles, offsetting air-quality gains.
``Electric vehicles are not going to bring blue skies to California,'' says Tom Austin, a Sacramento-based consultant for oil and auto industries.
Proponents contend the windfalls would be big. They envision California becoming the hub of an electric-vehicle-component industry that will create as many as 70,000 new jobs over the next few years.
``I see it as a grand experiment,'' says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. ``But it is one with such huge upside benefits and such small downside costs that I think the ARB should move ahead.''
Most agency watchers expect the ARB to do just that. Some even think Detroit has now resigned itself to the mandates, as evidenced by Chrysler's announcement last week that it will build an electric minivan to meet the ``zero-emission'' standards. But that won't stop companies from opposing them.