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California Clean Air Law Has Japan’s Car Makers Thinking Electric

July 18, 1991

TOYOTA CITY, Japan (AP) _ By the early 21st century, that perennial car of the future - the electric- powered vehicle - might finally start rolling out of one of the sprawling factories that dominate this huge corporate town.

One need look only across the Pacific to California to find out why.

Toyota Motor Corp. and other Japanese automakers have shifted their efforts to develop electric-powered vehicles into high gear because a new California clean air law mandates that by 1998, 2 percent of a manufacturer’s sales in the state release zero emissions.

Five years later, the level rises to 10 percent.

Detroit appears to have taken an early lead in the race. America’s Big Three - Ford, Chrysler and General Motors - already have joined forces to develop a new battery technology to power the cars.

But Japanese companies are determined not to be left behind.

″Of course there has been a lot of influence of the California law on our efforts,″ Masahiro Ohkawa, project general manager of Toyota’s research and development planning division, said in an interview in this city 150 miles west of Tokyo.

Among factors that could help the Japanese in the race for what could be the most important new automotive market in the coming century is a genius for taking new technologies and improving them to fit consumer needs.

An expected government-led program to tackle the huge problem of battery development should also help.

Keith Donaldson, a Tokyo-based auto analyst for Salomon Brothers Inc., believes the high cost of developing the new cars will ″play to the strength″ of Japanese companies that are in relatively healthy financial positions.

Major Japanese auto manufacturers cannot ignore the new California law because the state accounts for a substantial chunk of sales in the all- important U.S. market.

Toyota, for example, would have to sell 4,000-5,000 electric vehicles in California in seven years to comply with the statute.

Toyota has therefore created a new organization within its production division to develop marketable electric vehicles. The company, which has focused its energies on electric-powered vans, is again studying an electric passenger car.

At Nissan, the nation’s second-largest car maker after Toyota, spending for electric-vehicle development is up 30 percent from last year, said Masato Fukino, senior project engineer for the company’s Vehicle Research Laboratory.

″We think we have to concentrate development resources much more than before,″ he said in an interview in Tokyo.

Nissan and Toyota have so far produced only a handful of prototype vehicles such as electric-powered vans, some of which have been sold for experimental use.

The Environment Agency announced Monday that it will lease 14 Toyota-made electric vans, with maximum speeds of 53 mph and a range of 100 miles on a charge that takes 10 hours to build up, to governments in severely polluted cities.

But engineers shake their heads when they realize they must sell thousands of vehicles in California by 1998.

The host of technical problems that must be surmounted includes developing a battery that lasts long, recharges quickly and has plenty of pep.

Nissan has trumpeted is development of a ″super quick charge″ battery that can achieve 40 percent recharging in six minutes, but Fukino acknowledges there’s still a long way to go.

″At this stage, the electric vehicle is very expensive and the performance is very poor, nobody wants to buy that kind of car.″

Ohkawa agrees that it will be ″quite difficult″ to meet the sales requirements stipulated by California.

He believes U.S. manufacturers will initially have the inside track in California, in part because local governments can be expected to set up recharging stations and battery disposal standards that favor Detroit’s models.

Fukino notes that the GM Impact, an electric-run passenger car prototype, is more advanced than anything Nissan has now. But when asked if his company will catch up, he smiles and says, ″Yeah ... In the near future.″

The powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry is expected to provide a boost of perhaps $100 million over a decade for a project to develop a lightweight lithium battery, Fukino said.

Lithium batteries would be lighter and cheaper than other varieties, with the potential to provide more power for longer distances, but scientists have yet to figure out how to make such batteries safe.

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