The California Air Resources Board once again scaled back its electric vehicle mandate for 2003, but that still may not be enough as far as automakers are concerned.

CARB, in an apparent admission that battery technology remains too expensive and suffers from performance limitations, cut in half the 2003 requirement to 2% of light vehicle sales. It is at least the second time that CARB has backed off on the requirement, originally set at 10% of sales and rolled back to 4% last year.

According to the revised rules, automakers selling more than 35,000 light vehicles annually in California -- including General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG, Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. -- also will have to ensure that another 2% of sales are either gasoline/electric hybrids or fuel cell cars. An additional 6% will have to be "extremely clean" gasoline vehicles.

The new proposal also calls for the clean air program to be expanded to include 16% of vehicles sold by 2008. Failure to hit the overall 10% tally in 2003 still will cost manufacturers a whopping $5,000 for every vehicle short of the target.

But even with the cut to 2% EVs and other incentive loopholes, the industry still will have to deliver a record 4,650 to 9,300 of the battery-powered cars and trucks to the state in 2003. DaimlerChrysler plans to revive its electric Epic minivan -- put to pasture in 1999 due to lack of demand -- solely as a result of the new rules. And GM, alone, likely will be forced to sell about 4,000 battery-powered cars -- five times the number of EV1s it has delivered nationwide in the past three years combined.

Critics say the agency is clinging to its EV plan simply to save face. EVs, they say, remain too high-priced -- at roughly $20,000 more than comparable gasoline-powered vehicles. And despite technological improvements, they still suffer from performance limitations, with most requiring recharging every 100 miles or so.

"There's still no market for EVs," says a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the industry's trade group. The AAM says CARB's requirements for sales of hybrids and super ultra low emissions vehicles (SULEVs) also present an unreasonable timetable for automakers. "These are technologies that are still being tested for public acceptance," the spokeswoman says. Only one production car, the Nissan Sentra, has been certified to SULEV standards so far.

The AAM continues to call on CARB to conduct a "fair market test" to determine whether it's feasible to require the sale of EVs in the state. The AAM wants a three-year test beginning in 2003 in which EVs would be sold in a single California market to gage acceptability with consumers.

A hearing is slated for Jan. 25 in California at which time the mandate may be officially put on the books. However, further changes to the policy are possible.