Sunday, March 8, 2009

Electric Cars: Deja Vu All Over Again

I recently came across this excerpt:

Gasoline prices are rising rapidly. Nevertheless, more and more internal combustion vehicles are being sold and there are fears of a gas shortage. Experts predict that prices will continue to rise since proven reserves of petroleum are limited. Electric vehicle enthusiasts urge more emphasis on electric cars and trucks, since these will become more competitive as gas prices rise. They also point out the nonpolluting aspects of their technology. Business and government are being urged to push the electric vehicle, while conferences and associations are formed to coordinate this work. The electric enthusiasts are impatient that more is not being done to support electric vehicles, but they are convinced that such support must grow in the future. The year is 1912.

I found that quote in the opening paragraph of an article written in 1980 by Richard H. Schallenburg for the electrical engineering journal, IEEE Transactions on Education. Almost a century has passed but the story remains virtually the same. What intrigues me about the story of electric vehicles is why, after a hundred years, they remain a tiny minority of the cars and trucks on the road? How tiny? In 2008 (which was a disaster for the automotive industry), 13.2 million cars and light trucks were sold in the United States. Of these, 281,846 were hybrids (source: Electric Drive Transportation Association). Of the hybrids, 56 percent were Toyota Priuses. That means that hybrids make up just over two percent of sales last year. One might make the case that a decade earlier hybrid cars were non-existent so selling 281 thousand of them last year looks pretty good. And it is. But the internal combustion engine remains the (black) gold standard as it has for a hundred years.

The automobile has always been a machine that appealed to more than functionality. The automobile was never simply an alternative to the horse or the electric trolley. The automobile represented freedom, adventure, the harnessing of power. In the very early days of the automobile when it was not clear whether steam, electric, or internal combustion engines would be the power source for vehicles, cars started to be marketed for city driving where roads were better and distances shorter. Electrics made a lot of sense in this market. But the electrics were relatively slow compared to gasoline engines, the batteries were heavy and unreliable, and the infrastructure to recharge the cars was not readily available. Despite the limitations, automakers tried to find the niches to which the quiet, clean power of the electrics would appeal most. Rudi Volti in a Fall 1990 Invention and Technology magazine article wrote:

As with steam cars, the technical limitations are usually blamed, but the electric’s failure has also to do with the nature of the car’s customers and manufacturers. In fact, because of the users that it attracted, the electric’s very virtues became part of its undoing. Its reliability, silence, cleanliness, and ease of operation endeared it particularly to women drivers, who were also less likely than men to be put off by its limitations. A 1915 magazine article extolled the electric’s appeal to a woman: “She knows that it fulfills all of the demands of her daily routine of calling, shopping, and pleasure seeking. She knows that she likes to run it because there is a certain charm in its simplicity of operation and control—a sort of mild fascination. She knows, too, that she can step into its beautifully cushioned and brocaded interior, enjoy every minute of her ride and arrive at her destination as fresh and spotless as when she started.”

Despite the advertised advantages of electrics, the lower cost, economy, and higher speed of gasoline engines allowed cars to be driven longer distances over rough terrains unsuitable to the electrics. And the infrastructure was being rapidly built by the oil companies to make gasoline readily available almost everywhere. Cars became differentiated on speed, cost, and power. The automobile became not only a conveyance but a part of the very infrastructure of American life: the interstate highway, the suburbs... and the resultant traffic jams, pollution, and highway mayhem.

The current collapse of the automobile market is creating terrible stress on people all over the country. But perhaps out of this dark period we may finally move forward into an era where the newer technologies will be sustained. In 1912, the hope for electric vehicles was the specter of increasingly expensive gasoline. There may yet be another miracle which keeps oil prices low but we are running out of rabbits to pull out of our hats. The current world economic crisis seems like as good a time as any to finally move to a new generation of automotive technology.

[Image from Wikipedia showing Thomas Edison in 1913 in front of an electric car.]

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