Air Date: Week of December 18, 1992
John Reiger reports from Los Angeles on the latest entry in California's anti-smog sweepstakes. The new Claus zero-emission vehicle promises to make both gasoline and electric motors a thing of the past, but skeptics say it will never get off the ground.
CURWOOD: California may be getting a special gift this season. The state's known for its tough stands against air pollution, and has challenged manufacturers to come up with non-polluting vehicles. From Los Angeles, Living on Earth contributor John Reiger reports engineers are now ringing the bells for a traditional propulsion system that could become the wave of the clean air future.
VOICE OF GERMAN INDUSTRIALIST: I am pleased to announce that we have received approval to operate a new vehicle in the state of California...
REIGER: This was the scene at the Airport Holiday Inn in Los Angeles earlier this month, as Wilhelm Klaus, 46-year old head of the Polaris Group, announced that the family-owned toy and transportation giant would enter the zero-emissions vehicle market with a prototype vehicle that uses neither gasoline nor electricity.
KLAUS: We are extremely optimistic about the success of our design, which we have been developing for many years. The vehicle, as you know, is pulled by reindeer, eight or in some cases nine, and is capable of traveling enormous distances in comparison to the electric car. By eliminating both the fuel tank and the battery array, we have allowed for really huge cargo space. And of course, there's no problem with parking, since even homes here in California have a roof.
REIGER: The dapper and sophisticated Klaus makes a striking contrast to his affable and white-bearded father, from whom he took over the reins just ten years ago. But it has proven to be a decade of remarkable change for the Polaris Group, in many ways.
KLAUS: Of course, there have been changes since my father's day. He was a jolly, fat man, a beloved man. I am perhaps more of a business man. Maybe I am not so beloved. Of course we also now run fleets of these vehicles. It is no longer a one-man operation as it was in my father's day. However, I feel that the Polaris Group is continuing on in the tradition of my father's good work.
REIGER: Nowhere is the spirit of change more apparent than here, the state-of-the-art vehicle manufacturing and animal husbandry facility in Anaheim, California, where Polaris will build the new vehicle. I toured the plant with American manager Bill Rudolph.
RUDOLPH: We chose Anaheim primarily for its workforce, which we felt would be able to adapt to what we're trying to do. We're striving for a flatter organization with more room for worker input, and more than that, an environment in which worker creativity is nurtured and can grow and contribute to the process.
REIGER: Amid the optimism, a number of questions remain to be resolved, and Polaris' future in the vehicle industry is far from assured. Skeptics have questioned whether the vehicle, developed and tested in extremely cold conditions, will work in California, where there is little snow. The eight reindeer that power the vehicle could require as much as a hundred pounds of hay and grain each day. At present, neither fueling stations nor the vast delivery infrastructure to support a substantial number of vehicles exists. But California Department of Transportation spokesperson Lester Frank says that finding answers to questions like these is the purpose of a prototype program.
FRANK: It's true that a number of important questions about fuel and maintenance and so on do need to be answered, but the same is true of the electric car. We feel that as regulators, our job is to encourage the market to find solutions to California's need for a practical zero-emissions vehicle.
REIGER: But others are not so sanguine. Thea Hansen is a transportation specialist with the Washington-based consumer group, Citizens Alarm.
HANSEN: The market can only decide once all the costs are counted. And in this case, that can't happen. Because this is being sold as a zero-emissions vehicle, when in fact, it is not. Reindeer emissions include substantial amounts of methane, which is a significant factor in global warming, as well as large volumes of solid waste, which will be aerially discharged by these flying vehicles over a wide area - a prospect which we believe the public will view with genuine and justified alarm. Ultimately, we think a zero-emissions vehicle, powered by flying reindeer, is a fantasy. About as likely to materialize as cold fusion or the Easter Bunny.
KLAUS: Well, of course, every child can tell you that this will work. In answer to the second question, we are aware of a vocal minority that has been saying "not in my back yard." We think that the majority of Californians, however, are tired of this so-called NIMBYism standing in the way of meaningful progress. So we will go ahead. We are prepared to go to court if necessary to make this revolutionary vehicle available to the maximum number of people both here in California and eventually in the United States as a whole.
REIGER: The Polaris Group has announced that the first California-built vehicles are expected to fly off the line in 1995. Meanwhile, the company says several imported prototypes will be flying this December.
For Living on Earth, I'm John Reiger in Los Angeles.
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