The Big Three automakers said they have formed a consortium to find an efficient way to boost the range of electric cars, which the companies must produce to satisfy some tough California air quality laws.

General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. said the battery venture, called the United States Advanced Battery Consortium, does not plan to develop a new car but would seek a new way to increase the range of batteries now available for vehicles.The venture hopes to have preliminary results of its research within three years, the automakers said in a joint statement.

The companies said the Justice Department's Antitrust Division and other federal agencies and commissions have been notified of the agreement.

The Big Three already are involved in joint research into use of plastics in cars and trucks. There was no Justice Department opposition to that consortium.

In early January, GM announced it would proceed with production of its Impact electric car using existing lead-acid battery technology. That car has performance statistics similar to many gasoline-powered cars on the road now, but a range of about 120 miles at 55 mph.

The range limitation was attributed mainly to limits in existing battery technology. Impact production details have not been announced.

The Big Three face a 1998 deadline in California requiring that 2 percent of the cars sold in the state have no emissions - essentially mandating electric cars. That level rises to 10 percent in 2003.