Surprising history of EV cars

What did we lose when the development of electric cars was abandoned 100 years ago? Possibly a century of research, development and innovation that would have likely led to every household having more electricity than they could use today.

A world where electricity powered everything using technology we can’t imagine, and fossil fuel technology would have been confined to the history books under a chapter called “What were they thinking?”.

There are plenty of stories of people inventing or discovering free energy sources and having their patents confiscated by governments. Real or conspiracy theory? Do your research and decide.

Bottom line, it was Ford’s Model T that ultimately killed off the electric car in 1912, but do a little research and you’ll find the first EV was on the drawing board in 1828 (that’s right; 1828). Almost simultaneously inventors in Hungary, the Netherlands and North America thought electricity was the best way to replace the horse.

American inventor Robert Anderson had a working electric car in 1832, but it wasn’t until 40 years later that they became an option for the car-buying public.

In case you are wondering, research into electricity goes back to at least the 1600s (English scientist William Gilbert ), but it was Alessandro Volta’s battery of 1800 that provided a reliable source of electrical energy and opened the way for portable electrical power.

Ignoring for a moment the resurgence of the electric car currently, it was about 100 years ago that they first hit the streets to compete with big oil, the internal combustion engine and steam.

Between 1900 and 1912 a third of all cars on the roads in the US were electric. People liked them for the same reason they like them today. They are quiet, have no emissions and are easy to drive. Inventor Thomas Edison, perhaps assisted by superior side-kick Nikola Tesla, was among those who worked to develop and improve electric car performance.

EV Car

Early petrol cars had to be hand-cranked to be fired up, something ladies wouldn’t be seen doing a century ago. Car owners literally had to turn the internal combustion engine over using a leaver inserted into the front of the engine. Plenty of people broke their wrists as the starting handle flew back when the engine fired up.

Because of this, electric cars were initially marketed to ladies. Just turn the key and press play. No noise, no hand-starting, no troublesome gear changes.

The death knell came for electric powered cars in 1912 when Henry Ford sold the Model T with an electric starter. This appendage to the internal combustion engine killed electric cars off. Petrol cars were cheaper to buy than electric ones, were faster than electric cars, and there were no range limitations.

Lifting the bonnet on an early electric car, batteries where the petrol engine is normally found.
Lifting the bonnet on an early electric car, batteries where the petrol engine is normally found.

By around 1935 you’d be hard pushed to find an electric car on the road anywhere, and the commerce created by petrol stations as a retailer of much more than just fuel was an added bonus for the oil firms of the day.

But what if Henry Ford had got behind the electric powered car? Electricity was good enough to start his petrol engines after all!

Imagine where we would be today. Because the technology of creating power, harnessing it, and storing it would be leaps and bounds ahead of where we are today, and that technology would by now have made it into our homes. You could call it the lost century of innovation.

Had Ford chosen a different track, and had big oil not been so powerful, then the technology to produce near free clean power would have made centrally generated power and distribution along thousands of miles of wire cables obsolete. Each home would have its own safe and clean power source.

We would also have avoided countless environment disasters in accessing and transporting oil – not to mention wars to secure supplies of the black gold. Pick a war or conflict since the 1970s and oil is likely at the root of it.

During the past 50 years there have been occasional fuel shortages – mostly man-made. This has led to people looking at alternatives to fossil fuel technology; in the 70s, 80s and 90s electric cars were developed and abandoned.

The most successful of these was GM’s EV1 in 1996. Strangely, this futuristic looking car wasn’t sold to customers – it was a lease-only vehicle (mainly in California). This made it very easy for GM to take them all back in 2002 and crush most them; a few made it into museums.

Vintage EV Charging station
An EV charging station a century ago.
An EV charging station 2019.

Some hardened supporters of the EV1 claim GM caught on that it was losing money in parts and the servicing of cars that didn’t need much in the way of lubrication, spark plugs, cooling, oil and air filters etc. They also blame the oil industry for putting pressure on GM to get EV1s off the road – something GM denies.

GM maintains it couldn’t develop battery technology fast enough to meet demand for its electric cars, and so rather than invest, it abandoned the idea altogether.

Another opportunity lost; because just 10 years after GM pulled the plug, and 100 years after the internal combustion engine killed electric cars the first time, car manufacturers everywhere started heavily investing in electric vehicle technology.

In dropping the ball many times, the major car manufacturers have given a number of challenger brands space to enter the market – Tesla among them, plus myriad car manufacturers in China.

Sure, there’s still a long way to go to get the price of electric vehicles down – but the trend of increased adoption of electric cars is up; so prices will come down.

However, despite the ‘green’ perception of electric vehicles, mining some of the raw materials required to make them is causing concerns due to pollution and other environmental and social issues. Not to mention the electricity these cars need is frequently generated by fossil fuel technology (New Zealand is fortunate to have hydro and wind-powered generators).

Nevertheless, diesel engines are on the way out thanks in part to VW’s emission software shenanigans, and petrol will follow. I think you’d be hard pushed to buy a new fossil fuel car by 2030 and by 2050 internal combustion engines will be a distant memory. Museum pieces.

When one thinks of all the environmental disasters caused by oil, and the lost lives in the wars for it, one can only hope that this time electric cars will get a foothold and the technological catch-up can begin. Because with near free energy in the home, almost anything is possible.

But the good news is Ford is to build an all-electric car from the ground up – and it may look a little like the popular Mustang. Any colour you like; so long as it’s red.

Steve Hart

Steve Hart

Steve Hart is a journalist and editor based in Melbourne.

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