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SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - California's influential Air Resources Board on Thursday cut by 70 percent the number of electric cars and other zero-emission vehicles automakers 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 kowtowing 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.
Many of the attendees said in 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 competing technology.
Nichols, however, said the board was "banking on all of them."
A representative of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing 10 major automakers, could not be immediately reached for comment.
Auto industry analysts have said a mass market for fuel-cell vehicles, which combine stored hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity, is not likely to develop before the end of the next decade.
Battery vehicles also remain a niche offering after California reversed a zero-emission vehicle mandate from the 1990s and major automakers scrapped experimental programs like GM's EV1, a chapter in the state's regulatory history documented in the 2006 film "Who Killed the Electric Car?"
A spokesman for General Motors Corp said a key to achieving even California's lowered target announced on Thursday was to develop a hydrogen fueling infrastructure to support the planned growth in fuel cell vehicles.
"We can get the vehicle engineering done. The key piece is to get the infrastructure in place," said GM spokesman Dave Barthmuss.
The No. 1 U.S. automaker has one car in development, the fuel-cell Chevrolet Equinox, that meets the zero-emission mandate. The Equinox is in limited road tests with California-based Walt Disney Co, airline Virgin Atlantic and select drivers who live near hydrogen stations.
Honda Motor Co has begun leasing a limited number of its own fuel cell vehicle -- the FCX Clarity -- in Southern California.
Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki in Detroit; Editing by Gary Hill and Gunna Dickson