The electric car embodies the most modern of today’s automotive industry, but the truth is that the golden age of these vehicles happened at the dawn of the last century. At that time, 38% of all cars on the road in the United States were electric, while gasoline represented 22% (the remaining 40% were steam), according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Electric motor technology was expected to be a winner in the automotive industry, but then everything went wrong.
Renowned inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Alva Edison was convinced that the electric motor was superior. He even launched himself to improve the batteries, one of the components that has been most tried to be optimized in the current era. In his endeavor, he came to partner with Henry Ford to explore options for manufacturing an electric car with his mass production method.
At the turn of the 20th century, a third of the vehicles on America’s roads were powered by electricity. In the following ten years, sales of these cars continued to rise, according to the US Department of Energy. New York and other cities, including some European ones like London, had a fledgling fleet of electric taxis. The urban upper class, at that time the only one able to buy them, rode around in electric cars like modern carriages. Technology also dominated records. In 1899, the first vehicle to exceed 100 kilometers per hour, La Jamais Contente, did so thanks to electricity.
The electric car had grown out of a series of inventions in the second half of the 19th century. Rail-guided vehicles were first experimented with until the French physicist Gaston Planté invented the lead battery. Decades later and the initial design improved, what was probably the first electric tricycle circulated in Paris in 1881.
At first they were little more than electrified carriages driven at slow speeds. But the technology evolved until it became fully functional for urban use. So much so that in 1908, the American manufacturer Fritchle promoted its Victoria model as the only electric vehicle that allowed it to travel 100 miles (161 km) on a single battery charge.
It must be borne in mind that as we entered the 20th century, the horse was still the main form of transportation. Motor vehicles were slowly gaining ground. There were steam, a proven energy in trains and factories. But they were not practical, since they could take more than half an hour to start on a cold day. Gasoline models had their own drawbacks. They were cranked, turning hard, and operated with gears, making them more difficult to drive.
Electric cars were outstanding in some ways. They had instant electric start, no crank, made no noise, and didn’t fill the streets with smoke either. In addition, there was no danger of staining with grease and the entire bodywork did not vibrate as it did with combustion engines. By the early 1910s there were 33,842 registered electric vehicles in the United States. That was his peak of popularity. In the following years, various circumstances quickly led them to oblivion.
One of the aspects that doomed the electric car is the same one that currently slows down its massive adoption: the scarcity of charging points. At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was the cradle of electricity. Edison had invented the incandescent light bulb, which made it possible for the first time to dream of long-lasting electric lighting in homes. And his direct current competed for years with Nikola Telsa’s alternating current, spurring a business career to provide electrical services to society at the time. But the vast majority of homes, including city buildings, had no electricity in 1910. There weren’t many places to charge cars.
Although the nemesis of electric cars was probably a hurricane called Ford T. It appeared in 1908 and overwhelmed its competitors at the time. Thanks to the assembly line devised by its inventor, the price of this car was much lower than that of other combustion vehicles and, of course, that of electric vehicles.
The First World War (1914-1918) also contributed to the pre-eminence of the combustion engine. Cars and trucks were hardly useful in combat operations. They did not roll in the mud. But logistics and the military administration used them more and more to transport arms, ammunition, supplies, food and the soldiers themselves. The transition of the belligerent countries into war economies caused car manufacturers to turn to producing vehicles for the war effort. And these had to be internal combustion for practical reasons of displacement. At the end of the war, the automotive industrial machinery was perfectly oiled for this type of car.
In the mid-20s, the combustion engine, supported by Ford, had won the game over the electric. In 1920 alone, there were already nine million gasoline cars on American roads. However, it sometimes happens that a technological development, even if it does not succeed in the devilish race to conquer consumers, leaves its mark on future products in its market. In this case it also happened. The legacy for the rest of the cars was the electric start. Thanks to this technical innovation, gasoline engines no longer had to be cranked.
The defeat of electric cars was also due to other factors that have long been stumbling blocks to adoption. They had a reduced autonomy, between 50-65 km, enough for urban environments. But in the 1910s, American roads began to be paved. The cars venture out of the cities, a land that until now belonged to the domain of the railway. They are longer trips and to places where there are no electricity points to recharge the vehicles.
All this has changed a lot since then. Today there are already quite a few models that exceed 450 kilometers of autonomy. The infrastructure of charging points has expanded in recent years and fast and ultra-fast charging offer refueling times that are measured in minutes instead of hours. A greater environmental awareness has also emerged, which influences consumption and other factors, such as restrictions on the combustion engine in the center of cities.
The International Energy Agency estimates that in 2021 there were more than 16 million electric cars on the road worldwide. Although one last lever is missing for the electric car to be widely adopted: the price, one of the causes that brought down electric cars in 1912. With the Ford production line already running, a gasoline car cost $650. An electric sold for $1,750.
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