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History repeats itself with electric car push

Given all the new electric vehicles (EVs) hitting the road soon, including the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, one might think they are some sort of new-fangled concept. Yet the invention of the EV actually predates the iconic gasoline-fueled Model T Ford that began mass production in 1908.
Image: Detroit Electric car ad from 1912
A Detroit Electric car ad from 1912. TechNewsDaily
/ Source: TechNewsDaily

Given all the new electric vehicles (EVs) hitting the road soon, including the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, one might think they are some sort of new-fangled concept. Yet the invention of the EV actually predates the iconic gasoline-fueled Model T Ford that began mass production in 1908.

Early in the 20th century, EVs had themselves a bit of a heyday. But the greater traveling distance, higher top speed and easier refueling provided by the internal combustion engine, among other factors, put EVs in the rear view for decades. And until recently, with rising environmental and economic concerns, carmakers and consumers had never looked back.

In the spirit of what's old being new again, modern automakers are in some ways correcting for — and repeating — the mistakes of the EVs of yesteryear. Only time will tell if the 21st century electric revolution ends up short-circuiting as well.

The (first) ascent of EVs
Various small vehicles powered by electricity were independently invented a number of times in Europe and the United States in the first half of the 19th century.

EVs began to pop up in the U.S. in the 1890s, and peaked with 28 percent of the (admittedly small) passenger vehicle market in 1900, according to research by Michael Brian Schiffer, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and author of "Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America."

Well over half of these early EVs were hired out for delivery services and social chauffeuring for "gentlemen and gentlewomen of means," said David Kirsch, a professor of capitalism studies at the University of Maryland and author of "The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History."

Dozens of manufacturers produced EVs. Many looked "basically like horseless carriages," Kirsch said. The first EVs were not cheap, and owning one was a status symbol.

Why EVs petered out
The affordability of the mass-produced Model T Ford, however, made owning a car a very realistic prospect for the middle class.

Sales of EVs peaked at about 6,000 units in 1913 and 1914, but by then the market share for electrics had dwindled to just one percent as annual sales of the Model T Ford soared to 200,000, Schiffer's research showed.

The far greater range and speed permitted by the internal combustion engine compared to electronic propulsion, then as now, are often cited as key reasons why EVs of yore faded away.

A goodly number of EVs by 1910 boasted a range between 50 and 100 miles per charge, Schiffer wrote — as good as EVs of today, and practical in nearly all driving situations — but gasoline vehicles could go well beyond this distance. Making matters worse: the EVs' speed topped out at around 15 to 20 mph.

Taken together, these limitations meant that only the internal combustion engine could allow shopkeepers, for example, to make timely deliveries or pickups deep into the countryside.

Refueling gas-powered vehicles also became easier as filling stations began to appear alongside roads in the 1910s, while charging and battery swap-out stations for EVs did not emerge.

From an economic standpoint, the average American family and business could not afford multiple cars in the early 20th century, and given the EVs' hang-ups, "if you can only have one vehicle, it's going to be an internal combustion one," Kirsch said.

Another significant factor: Early internal combustion engine vehicles had to be hand-cranked to start, a laborious and even dangerous process. EVs, on the other hand, were a cinch — "turn a switch and you drove away," said Jon Bereisa, a retired General Motors engineer who worked on EV drive systems for decades and heads Auto Lectrifcation, an EV consultancy.

As such, EVs were often marketed toward women. But that changed in 1912 when Charles Kettering invented, ironically, the electric starter for gasoline vehicles.

"That little motor did in the electric car," Bereisa said.

Past is prologue
Technology has made up for some of the old-school EV problems, such as maximum speed. (Yes, conventional gasoline vehicles reach 100-mile-per-hour-plus speeds — the Volt and Leaf do not — but that is not a practical concern.)

But as far as batteries have come, they remain expensive. Much like in the 1910s after relatively cheap Model T Fords came on the scene, in today's mature automobile marketplace the Volt, Leaf and other full-size electric vehicles cost substantially more than conventional vehicles of similar size and equipment.

(The car-buying calculus will get easier for consumers moving ahead, though; according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the price of EV batteries should drop by half in five years, courtesy of government investments in domestic manufacturing and deployment.)

So-called range anxiety will also remain a bugaboo for batteries-only electric vehicles such as the Leaf; that is, until public recharging facilities are established, which for now are a rarity outside of a few regions in California and some major cities.

"All-electrics appeal to a very limited market and one in which most households can’t participate because the cost is prohibitive and range is still a factor — a second vehicle is often needed," Curtis and Judy Anderson, the authors of "Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History," wrote in an e-mail.

Lessons learned
The Chevy Volt, however, offers a solution to the range problem by being an electric hybrid: A gasoline generator kicks in to power the electric drive unit after the batteries are exhausted at around 40 miles for another 300 miles of coverage; the batteries-only Nissan Leaf, meanwhile, claims a range of 100 miles per charge.

GM wanted to avoid the range pitfall that helped doom the EVs of a century ago, Bereisa said, who also worked on the architecture of Volt's propulsion system. "The Volt can be your single car," Bereisa told TechNewsDaily.

Batteries-only EVs will still mainly appeal to a niche group of people for whom both range and cost are not a problem. But they do represent the overall goal, perhaps, of the EV revolution: to rid transportation of fossil fuels.

"The interesting question is which path will be more successful: the all-electric transformational path" — that taken by Nissan with the Leaf — "or the hybrid, more incremental path," that taken by GM with its Volt, Kirsch said.

A different era
At least out of the gate, GM is producing small runs of the Volt; 10,000 in 2001 and 30,000 in 2012. Nissan, for its part, has capped Leaf reservations at 20,000 in the U.S. so far. (Around 12 million cars are sold a year in the U.S. nowadays, down from a pre-recession 17 million or so.)

But in recognition of the promise of EVs, especially as urban populations boom in the decades ahead, both GM and Nissan are making their EVs in plants that can ramp up production to 50,000 to 100,000 vehicles per year.

In significant ways, the world and its car-buying public are different from 100 years ago, and the 2010s might be just the right time for the EV from a zeitgeist perspective, Bereisa said.

In an era of climate change and economic and national security woes, Bereisa said, "people want to drive a guilt-free product and do something good for the neighborhood, the city and the planet."