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By Nichola Groom
SACRAMENTO, March 27 (Reuters) - California's influential Air Resources Board on Thursday cut by 70 percent the number of electric cars and other zero-emission vehicles that auto makers will be required to sell in coming years, in a strong signal that technology has lagged hopes in the largest U.S. auto market.
Following a marathon session that included testimony from dozens of auto executives and environmentalists, the board voted to reduce the number of pure ZEVs, or cars powered entirely by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, to 7,500 for the three years from 2012 to 2014. The previous requirement, from 2003, called for 25,000 such vehicles during that period.
The board's final number was three times higher than the 2,500-ZEV requirement its staff had proposed.
The board also set a separate mandate for hybrid cars.
Nearly 60,000 of the so-called advanced technology partial ZEVs, including plug-in hybrids and compressed natural gas vehicles, will make up for the cutback in the pure ZEV requirement, the board said. The staff proposal had included a mandate for 75,000 such vehicles.
Advocates of clean car technologies called the move a step backward for California's push to cut car pollution and accused the board of kow-towing to automakers.
The California decision was expected to affect a dozen other U.S. states that have followed its lead in setting policies for zero-emission vehicles.
"It's better than the staff proposal, but it's a very low number," Jay Friedland, executive director of advocacy group Plug In America, said.
CARB Chair Mary Nichols said the new requirements were realistic and would keep the pressure on automakers to produce fuel cell and electric vehicles while giving them the flexibility to meet the state's stringent requirements with technologies that are now ramping up on a wider scale.
"All we've done is change the definition of a ZEV to allow an electric vehicle to have a little supplemental gasoline that goes with it," Nichols said. "I don't think that it's a step backward in the real world."
The board asked its staff to spend the next year coming up with a set of recommendations that would simplify the state's zero-emissions vehicle program.
When asked if everything that was decided at the Thursday meetings could change with the overhaul of the ZEV program, Nichols replied: "It could."
Many of the attendees said in their testimony that the structure of the program pitted clean car technologies against one another, and advocates of electric cars as well as fuel cell cars each accused the board of favoring the other's technology.
Nichols, however, said the board was "banking on all of them."
(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Gary Hill and Gunna Dickson)