The car industry is about to collide head-on with the state government, and car manufacturers based in Southern California are bracing for the accident about to happen.

"All the manufacturers are in agreement you're heading for a train wreck," said Jim Olson, the senior vice president of external and regulatory affairs for Toyota Motors' North American headquarters in Torrance.

On Sept. 9, the California Air Resources Board unanimously reaffirmed its mandate that 10 percent of car manufacturers' sales in California must be electric or hybrid vehicles by 2003, or the companies could face substantial fines. Local carmakers said they intend to try to comply with the state's mandate, but they believe it won't be met.

"We don't disagree with the (pollution) goals, but we think there are other means. We are trying to point out the realities of the costs involved," said Kim Custer, a spokesman for Cypress-based Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America.

Ford Motor Co. owns six car companies with headquarters in Irvine: Lincoln-Mercury, Mazda, Jaguar, Volvo, Aston Martin and Land Rover. Its spokesman on this issue said the market for electric and hybrid vehicles is "not that big."

The six largest sellers of vehicles in California Ford, DaimlerChrysler, General Motors Corp., Honda, Toyota and Nissan must have 4 percent of their vehicles pollution-free in the year 2003, with another 6 percent being low-emission vehicles. That means electric vehicles and hybrids powered by a combination of batteries and a small internal combustion motor.

Manufacturers selling 4,501 to 35,000 vehicles annually in California a group that includes Kia, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Hyundai, Jaguar, Land Rover and Volvo must see that 10 percent of their sales are made up of low-emission hybrids by 2003.

In 1999, 1.2 million new cars were sold in California, roughly the same as in 1998. If those numbers hold for 2003, car manufacturers will have to sell at least 120,000 electric or hybrid vehicles that year. Because electric cars have not caught on with the public and most manufacturers have stopped selling them, and because hybrids are just being introduced, the chances of meeting this mandate are slim. But if the car manufacturers don't meet it, they face fines of up to $5,000 per vehicle.

"The rules allow the air board to assess civil penalties for not doing it," said Jerry Martin, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. "We expect them to comply."

Still, it might be cheaper to pay the fines than to produce the electric vehicles, which the manufacturers say are far too expensive for the average consumer. "We could not sell these vehicles at a profit, not even at break-even. The regulation is going to have to change in some way," Olson said.

The carmakers have been hoping to get the mandate eased, but they are facing formidable foes.

The head of the Air Resources Board is Alan C. Lloyd, a former chief scientist at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, where he was one of the biggest supporters of the electric vehicle. He is a longtime expert on alternative fuels.

None of the board members come from the automobile or petroleum industries, nor are there any representatives of big business.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.