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New Briefs II

Electric Car Law May be Dropped

Los Angeles Times

California Gov. Pete Wilson's administration Thursday disclosed the details of a proposed deal to replace the mandate that 20,000 electric cars be sold in the state starting next year with voluntary contracts that let auto companies decide how many cars to produce.

The terms prompted vehement protests from environmental groups complaining that the state's smog agency caved in to pressure from the auto industry. But Air Resources Board Chairman John Dunlap defended the compromise, saying it would better achieve the goal of putting high-quality electric cars on California roads.

Under the deal, the air board next month would repeal its requirement that 2 percent of cars offered for sale in California by major auto makers beginning with 1998 models be exhaust-free vehicles. Instead, General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota, Honda and Mazda would sign voluntary agreements that do not guarantee a quota of electric cars to be marketed.

The companies would be required to report regularly how many electric cars they have the capacity to produce, the size of their investment and features of the specific models. But the deal "does not obligate the manufacturer to produce, deliver or sell a specified number," according to documents released Thursday. Instead, customer demand will determine how many cars are offered for sale, the state report said.

The voluntary arrangement would become mandatory in 2003, when 10 percent of California cars offered for sale by the seven companies would have to be exhaust-free. The air board will decide March 28 whether to adopt the new program.

Quarks Might Be Divisible

The Washington Post

Scientists plumbing the innermost workings of the atom have tentative but disquieting evidence that could challenge accepted theories about the structure of matter on the smallest scale.

It is just possible, according to researchers from the Collider Detector at Fermilab (CDF), a consortium working at the federally sponsored accelerator facility outside Chicago, that quarks - the smallest known constituents of protons and neutrons - are not fundamental, indivisible particles, but may be made up of yet smaller entities of unknown nature.

The team turned up nearly 1,200 observations during a year of experiments in which colliding particles were deflected or "scattered" in ways that apparently cannot be reconciled with the predictions of current particle physics theory. But the odd trajectories and energy levels observed in the collisions might make sense if quarks were composed of tiny subunits that could send matter flying off in unexpected ways.

It could be that small adjustments in current theory could account for the discrepancies. But it is not inconceivable, Fermilab noted in a statement Wednesday, that "the data are the first hint that the fundamental constituents of matter may not be fundamental after all."

The Fermilab measurements - first reported by the journal Science, which will describe the findings in its Friday issue - were taken during experiments in which protons are hurled into their antimatter counterparts, called antiprotons, at speeds near that of light. The antiparticles annihilate each other and the resulting energy is transformed into a spray of other material, including quarks, which occur in six types.

Talks to Renew Semiconductor Agreement

Los Angeles Times

Anxious to avert an election-year trade battle, the United States has agreed to relinquish a powerful trade lever - numerical targets - in hopes of winning renewal of a controversial agreement designed to expand foreign access to the Japanese semiconductor market.

But Japanese government and industry leaders have spurned the olive branch and, in a two-day meeting with their U.S. counterparts that begins Thursday in Newport Beach, Calif., are expected to repeat their assertion that the U.S.-Japan semiconductor agreement has outlived its usefulness and should be allowed to expire at the end of July.

They point to the expansion of foreign market share in Japan since the agreement's inception - the U.S. share alone jumped from 8.5 percent in 1986 to 17 percent in 1994 - as proof that foreign semiconductor makers no longer need help selling to Japanese electronics firms, auto companies and telecommunications giants.

"The Japanese have absolutely said no renewal, under no circumstances," said a U.S. official in Tokyo, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The Japanese see this as the agreement that started the whole business of targets, affirmative action in trade, so they'd like to kill it."

U.S. officials fear Japan's refusal to even discuss an extension of the five-year agreement has set the stage for a confrontation that could damage U.S.-Japan relations on the eve of President Clinton's April visit to Tokyo and hurt the U.S. semiconductor industry's expansion in the Japanese market.

The United States wants a renewed agreement that would commit both sides to "gradual and steady" progress for foreign companies, continued U.S.-Japan industry collaboration and close monitoring of the market.

Baboon Marrow Transplant Fails

Los Angeles Times

An experimental baboon bone marrow transplant performed in December in an effort to prolong the life of a San Francisco AIDS activist has apparently failed, but the patient nevertheless remains in remarkably good health, physicians said Wednesday.

The results have convinced researchers to be "more aggressive" with the next such transplant they undertake, said Dr. Steven Deeks, the University of California, San Francisco physician who performed the Dec. 14 procedure.

A series of blood tests performed on 38-year-old Jeff Getty over the past few weeks have failed to show the presence of any baboon cells, a strong indication that the transplant did not take, Deeks said.

"The tests (for the baboon cells) are experimental and difficult to do," Deeks said, "but clearly, if there were any significant amount present, we would know by now."