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California has taken the lead in getting electric vehicles back on the road. Under a new state law carmakers will have to begin selling electric vehicles by 1998.

While the initial production will be relatively small, the numbers grow rather rapidly.Under the California law, 2 percent of new car sales in 1998 must be what are called zero emission vehicles, or ZEV's. Essentially this means an electric conveyance. The rule applies to all vehicles up to 8,500 pounds, so most delivery trucks are included.

Now 2 percent for starters may not seem like a lot. However, with annual sales of about a million units in California, 2 percent amounts to 20,000 vehicles. By 2003 there must be 100,000 electrics sold.

That is an important word - sold. It will be up to the manufacturers to find ways to encourage the public to buy them. Right now there are marketing experts seeking ways to sell them.

General Motors introduced its Impact, a sleek two-seater, to the public about a year ago. Outgoing Board Chairman Roger Smith announced that GM would build the car, but didn't say where or when.

Now we know where. Impact will be built at the Reatta Craft Center in Lansing, Mich. The Buick Reatta sport coupe is being phased out and the Impact will take its place. However, we still don't know when that production will actually start.

Impact could give General Motors a significant lead in the sales of electric cars. As of now most of the electric vehicles being tested are vans.

Ford has been testing an electric powered Aerostar. Chrysler has electrified a Caravan. Peugeot, Europe's third largest automaker, has two electrics, both vans.

Peugeot executives expect there will be at least 200,000 electric vehicles a year sold in Europe by 1995. Already Peugeot has received orders for its electric Peugeot J5 and Citroen C25 from the Electric Company of France and the China Light and Power Company of Hong Kong.

Back in the 1920s the Railroad Express delivery company had a large fleet of electric trucks plying the streets of most major cities in the United States. They worked.

Electric delivery fleets are especially practical for large urban areas. These vehicles do not cover long distances so overnight recharging of batteries is not cumbersome.

It is also the urban areas, with large concentrations of motor vehicles, that suffer the most from engines that burn fuel.

The California law also includes an incentive program designed to get older cars off the road. Older cars produce significantly more pollutants than newer ones.

Electric vehicles will eventually become part of the solution to the pollution problem. If lighter weight, longer lasting batteries are developed, the biggest drawback to electric cars and trucks will be solved.

As more companies commit to the production of electrics, the incentive for battery research will grow. As of now, for economic reasons, virtually all electric vehicles are conversions from gasoline burning designs.

With demand, one day we will see major breakthroughs in electric powered highway transportation.