Norway decision leaves Ford electric car in doubt

DETROIT — In another sign of fading hopes for electric vehicles, Norway announced Tuesday that it could not meet demands from Ford Motor Co. to keep its Think auto plant open. In late August, the Dearborn-based automaker announced it would stop selling electric cars in the United States and also was prepared to withdraw from the Think Nordic plant that makes the Think City electric car. Ford has said the market for electric cars was too small, while environmentalists say U.S. automakers have dragged their heels on developing and promoting electric cars like Ford's Think. Ford has said it would decide whether to close the Norwegian plant by the end of November on the future of the Think. "Clearly, the death sentence was hanging over its head," said Daniel Becker, director of global warming and energy programs for the Sierra Club. Ford spokeswoman Carolyn Brown said the company remains committed to alternative-power systems as well as to improving the fuel economy of gasoline-burning vehicles. "We are going to be focusing our resources on the technologies of (gas-electric) hybrids and fuel-cell development," she said. Ford has said it will start making a hybrid-powered Escape sport-utility vehicle by the end of 2003. Norwegian minister of industry Ansgar Gabrielsen said Ford wanted his government to set aside money for the plant near Oslo and order a fleet of the pollution-free vehicles to keep the operation running. At a news conference in Oslo on Tuesday, he said he had written to Ford saying Norway was willing to take other steps to stimulate demand, such as allowing electric cars to use bus lanes. "But the economic framework in the proposal from Ford is much too big for us to get involved," Gabrielsen said. There is wide agreement among environmentalists, regulators, and even many in the auto industry that fuel cells hold out the best hope to become the transportation power source of tomorrow. Unlike an internal combustion engine, a fuel cell power system uses no petroleum and releases no greenhouse gases or toxic chemicals. A fuel cell produces electricity from hydrogen, with water the only waste product. "The fuel cell is the car of the future," Becker said from the Sierra Club's office in Washington. "It will be able to run pollution-free." Its widespread use, however, is years away he said. And while working on fuel-cell technology, the U.S. auto industry is neglecting other power systems available now — including electricity and gasoline-electricity hybrid — he said. "The auto industry is saying ... 'we can't walk and chew gum at the same time,'" Becker said. Brown said Ford is working on many fronts to reduce or eliminate use of gasoline to power its vehicles. "There is no one silver bullet," she said. The Norwegian plant employs about 120 people and has produced more than 1,000 Think City vehicles in all. Automakers have been under pressure to develop vehicles powered by something other than gasoline, and California has enacted increasingly tough mandates for low- and nonpolluting vehicles. Ford shares fell 32 cents to close Tuesday at $9.34 on the New York Stock Exchange.