A recent story in the New York Times opened with this thought provoking introduction. “About 80 percent of new cars sold in Norway are battery-powered. As a result, the air is cleaner, the streets are quieter and the grid hasn’t collapsed. But problems with unreliable chargers persist.”
The electric vehicle, as with so many things in recent years, is a point of contention. Politicians that muddy the waters with skill make it almost an impossibility to seperate fact from fiction, to find accurate information and to have an informed, respectful discussion about the pros, the cons, and the future of electric vehicles.
On September 20, 1893, the Duryea brothers introduced a motor wagon. A few months later they became the first automobile manufacturer in the United States. And from that date forward every stage of automobile evolution and each technology advancement became a point of contention.
Montgomery Ward, in 1896, said that the automobile was a fad that children should see before it passed. City’s enacted laws that prohibited the use of automobiles after sunset. On September 13, 1899, Henry Hale Bliss was struck by the driver of an electric-powered taxicab in New York City. That ignited a passionate outcry about electric taxis and busses, and automobiles in general. In 1910 a group called the Farmers Anti Automobile Society (FAAS) formed in Pennsylvania to lobby for restrictions on automobile use.
Stockholders at Studebaker were incensed when the board of directors authorized production of the company’s first automobile, an electric, in 1902. Chrysler introudced hydraulic brakes on their cars in late 1925. Henry Ford took out full page advertisements warning of dangers linked with hydraulic brakes, and continued using mechanical brakes until 1939. Turn signals were not standard equipment on Chevrolet cars until 1953.
Manufacturers that produced electric vehicles and steam powered cars competed with companies that built gasoline cars for more than twenty years. In 1891, William Morrison built one of the first practical electric cars in the United States. By the dawn of the 20th century electric cars accounted for almost a third of all vehicles manufactured. They were especially popular with urban residents and were marketed toward women as they were cleaner. And they did no require crank starting, a potentially dangerous operation. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford’s wife Clara, and President Woodrow Wilson’s wife Ellen all drove electric cars.
So, why did electric cars fade from popularity? Available battery technology resulted in limited range, limited speed and a high purchase price. The mass-produced Model T by Henry Ford made gas-powered cars widely available. They were reasonably priced and easy to repair. In 1912 the electric starter was introduced on new Cadillacs.
There was another factor that dramtically limited the market for electric vehicles. Many rural communities in the south, southwest, west and northwest were not electrified until the 1920s, and in some cases the 1930s. Still, a few companies that produced electric vehicles survived by supplying niche market vehicles. As an example, Detorit Electric built electric postal vans for urban usage into the mid 1930s.
Do electric vehicles, and supportive infrastructure, represent the next step in automotive evolution? Are electric vehicles practical for long distance travel? What is the life expectancy of batteries and what is the cost of replacement? On the May 14 episode of Coffee With Jim program, a podcast from Jim HInckley’s America, Mike and Jessica May of Electric Route 66 discussed these questions, and shared stories of their adventures with a Tesla on Route 66.
As a board member of the Historic Electric Vehicle Foundation they also discussed the foundations display of historic vehicles at the Powerhouse Visitor Center in Kingman, Arizona and plans for phase two. This will include development of a museum as well as an educational facility dedicated to the electric vehicle.