Tesla, Lucid Motors, and Rivian are in the news almost daily. The electric vehicle is a point of contention, a glimpse of the future, or a milestone in the evolution of automotive technology. All three points of view are correct. As the development of supportive infrastructure is lagging, a push to abandon gasoline powered vehicles is a point of contention. And just as in 1899 when electric taxis and busses began replacing horse drawn vehicles in some major cities, the EV was a promising glimpse of the future. Those primitive taxis and busses were also milestones in the evolution of transportation.
On a September afternoon in 1899, Mr. Henry Bliss stepped from a New York City curb and into history. He was the nation’s first pedestrian to be struck and killed by an automobile. As it so happens, that automobile was an electric taxicab.
Even the argument that the electrric vehicle is needed to curb polution is an old discussion. In1890 there were more than 175,000 horses in New York City. They pulled wagons, trolleys, ambulances, freight wagons, carriages, and provided basic transportation. Consider this, it is estimated that the average horse excretes nearly 20 pounds of manure each dayand more than 5 gallons urine. Adding to the stench of the streets were unscrupulous owners that merely left a horse in the street when it died.
A visitor to New York in 1899 wrote that the streets were, quote, “literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting . . . smelling to heaven.” That visitor also noted that some residents made a lucrative living as “crossing sweepers” that would offer their services to pedestrians by clearing a path for walking. When it rained the streets of the city were a thick, stinky morass, and in the summer a breeze whipped clouds of manure dust and flies.
During the dawning years of the American auto industry, electric and steam powered cars. The gasoline powered cars were a possible future alternative, if they could be perfected. Meanwhile, if they had vision, the owners of leading manufacturers of transportation vehicles, horse drawn equipment, realized that the automobile was the future. To survive they would have to do more than transition, they would have to be innovative and develop new technologies.
J.M. Studebaker at the helm of Studebaker, the largest manufacturer of wheeled vehicles in the world, noted that, quote, “Gas-powered cars are clumsy, dangerous, noisy brutes that stink to high heaven and break down at the worst possible moments.” And so, when the decision was made to move beyond the production of horse drawn vehicles, the first Studebaker automobile manufactured was an electric designed by Thomas Edison. The company did not build a gasoline powered car until 1904. Even then the company continued producing electric vehicles until 1912.
Contrary to popular belief, oil companies were not the sole contributor to the demise of the electric vehicle. Clinton Woods was a visionary in need of investors. After evaluating the meritis of different types of engines, he settled on electric motors. He also focused energies and resources on the development of supportive infrastructure such as a parking meter that was also a battery charger. In 1899 financier Samuel Insull and several board members of Standard Oil purchased Woods designs and patents. Then with an astounding $10 million in capital stock launched the Woods Motor Vehicle Company.
The company immediately began producing an electric Hansom Cab that sold well in New York City and other major cities. In 1900 the company introduced a Victoria that was displayed at Chicago’s first auto show. The manager of the Honolulu Iron Works was so enthralled he placed an order and imported the first automobile into Hawaii.
Introduced in 1916, the Woods Dual Power, a hybrid, was the company’s zenith. The vehicle combined a Woods designed four-cylinder engine and an auxiliary electric motor. At speeds under 15 miles per hour, the gasoline engine idled and the car was driven by the electric motor. Faster speeds were obtained by using the gasoline engine with the electric motor as an auxiliary.
An a bit of historic trivia, during the first years of the 20th century, in the northeast it was often easier to find a place to charge batteries than to purchase gasoline. Many automotive pioneers envisioned the electric vehicle as the replacement for the horse, at least in metropolitan areas.
In 1884 Andrew Riker established the Riker Electric Motor Company in Brooklyn, New York to manufacture motors and dynamos, and in 1895 began producing automobiles. Before the turn of the century, the Riker Electric Vehicle Company was producing more than a dozen types of electric cars, busses, and trucks.
With introudction of the electric starter on the 1912 Cadillac, investment in new technologies shifted toward development of gasoline powered vehicles. Still, a few companies such as Detroit Electric held on for decades. This company survived into the 1930s, and even produced electric mail delivery trucks for the United States Post Office.
But the electric vehicle was never completely abandoned, even by large companies. In 1959, GE created the Henney Kilowatt to highlight that the electric vehicle had progressed far beyond the vehicles manufactured in the teens. The car was actually a Renault Dauphine transformed into an electric car.
With the energy crisis and gas rationing of the early 1970s, auto companies and engineers again turned their attention to the electric vehicle. Audi built an electric vehicle and tested several of them to nearly one million miles. An inventor in Florida created the weird wedge-shaped Sebring Vanguard CitiCar in 1975 as an electric commuter and commenced production.
The cornerstone of the modern EV is the sporty GM/Saturn EV1 from 1990. As with the Edsel, many factors contributed to the failure of the car. But from the standpoint of technology, the car was a success. However, before General Motors could begin employing new technologies, gas-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius were introduced.
Tesla was and is a game changer. The company has transformed automobile manufacturing. It is also a leader in the development of infrastructure needed for practical use of an EV. And it is leading in development of technologies that increase range.
With that said, there are issues to resolve before the EV can replace the gasoline powered vehicle. There is a need for improved battery technology, battery recycling, and for infrastructure needed to make them more practical. But remember, in the infancy of the auto industry, the lack of supportive infrastructure such as gas stations led many people to believe that the automobile would never replace the horse other than for urban use.