The California Air Resources Board (CARB) won't rush to reveal its decision on a 2% electric vehicle (EV) mandate for the '98 model year, even though carmakers apparently have passed their "drop dead" deadline to tool up for production.

CARB Chairman John Dunlap III says his agency won't issue its decision until February or March, after the agency's staff has developed a plan he has requested.

In a presentation at December's 1995 Global Electric Vehicles Conference and Summit Meeting in Arlington, VA, (sponsored by five Intertec Publishing Co. magazines, including Ward's Auto World), Mr. Dunlap waffles about the EV sales mandate. Although he believes long-term EV benefits are sound, Mr. Dunlap says he would be willing to grant more flexibility if needed. He poses the question of whether CARB should stick to its original mandate or move to a more market-based approach to solving air quality problems.

But after revealing that his boss, California Gov. Pete Wilson, opposes sales mandates, Mr. Dunlap says he's not aware of any intent by CARB to move away from the original 2% sales requirement.

Mr. Dunlap also says CARB never planned for 1998 to be more than a zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) introduction. "We don't have to score on first down," he says. "We can score on the next play."

American Automobile Manufacturers Assn. President Andrew H. Card insists automakers favor EVs and support cleaner air nationwide. The Big Three "believe that EVs have a great deal of potential," he says. But absent a suitable battery, there cannot be a commercially successful EV for '98. "You simply can't mandate a technological breakthrough," he tells EV conference attendees.

The Big Three's top spokesman also notes that it will cost nearly $20 billion over the next 15 years to create an infrastructure to support EVs.

He notes that carmakers are competitive and are in business to make money. "No one has EV hidden in his basement. If there's a battery breakthrough, the EV market will take off."

If the mandate stays on the books, Detroit will comply, Mr. Card says. But, he adds, "it would be better to do this right than fast."