The California mandate that volume-production automakers make 2% of their 1998 model California-market vehicles zero-emitting, electric vehicles (EVs) is still in force, but the case for forcing EVs to market is deteriorating.

Emboldened by EV proponents' everweakening arguments for electric vehicles, Detroit's Big Three in July told officials of the Ozone Transport Commission (OTC) -- the Northeast's 12-state coalition seeking to adopt California-type clean-air regulations -- that unless OTC members forego EV-mandating proposals, the automakers will be forced to scrap their proposed 49-state FedLEV program to produce significantly less-polluting vehicles.

Evidence and events are mounting to suggest the EV movement may be running out of juice:

* A recent study from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh indicated that emissions from the production and recycling of lead for lead-acid EV batteries would increase environmental lead levels to many times those derived from burning leaded gasoline, which was eliminated years ago thanks to environmental concerns.

* Governors from four states jointly penned a letter to California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, urging him to pressure regulators into repealing the 1998 EV mandate. Gov. Wilson is considered a strong 1996 Presidential candidate, but lugging his state's EV policies on the campaign trail could be a liability -- and he may publicly call for repeal of the mandate if it becomes a political necessity.

California Air Resources Board (CARB) head John Dunlap says that if technology is not available to meet the state's 1998 mandate, CARB will consider dropping or changing the law.

* Several grass roots efforts in California -- and some big-money programs -- are aimed at derailing the state's EV policies. Talk of taxpayer-funded subsidies to promote initial EV sales has riled groups such as Californians Against Hidden Taxes (CAHT). Joining them against EVs is the California Manufacturers Assn.

* U.S. Electricar, Santa Rosa, CA, once considered to have the potential to become the GM of the EV industry, said in March that it was pulling out of the consumer EV business; the biggest name in EVs couldn't pay the rent for its offices.

* Developers of advanced batteries capable of making EVs less expensive and longer-running, who at first made a new-battery announcement almost monthly, recently have fallen quite silent.