|The Inevitable Electric
|The ICE Age is coming to an end. The reign of the Internal Combustion Engine will
have lasted just about a century, from 1908 to about 2010.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the electric car, a nascent technology measured in the hundreds of units worldwide, was slowly making inroads into the transportation sector, displacing tiny numbers of the dominant transportation power plant, and ecological disaster in its own right, the horse. Horses' exhaust was smelly and bred disease. When dry, it turned to dust that covered everything. When wet, it created a vile, slippery slop that covered roads and boardwalks. Livery operations took up a lot of space.
The electric had advantages and disadvantages. It was quiet, it did not pollute, and it went farther and faster than anything else on the road. Horses had an effective range of about 10 miles between refueling stops, and a regular operating speed of about 6 mph. Battery-electrics could travel 40 miles or more on a charge, and at speeds double that of horses. Electrics were more reliable than horses, and required less routine maintenance, and were easier to fix. However, fuel was
expensive and had to be produced by the owner, and voltages varied from car to car and generator to generator.
40-48 volt systems were reasonably common for battery-electrics, but there was no real standard. Hard surface roads were rare, and the battery-electrics, heavy from battery weight and fitted with narrow wheels, would get mired in the mud. The other electric car, the trolley, was also thriving in urban areas and their outskirts, sometimes known as radial railways. But other factors conspired to do in the early electrics.
The internal combustion engine underwent some major improvements, notably the pressurized radiator and cooling system. This permitted it to travel more than 10 miles at a time before it would overheat, and allowed it to grow to useful sizes. This freed the internal combustion engine from horse-watering troughs. And a convenient fuel was found - petrol. Previously a waste product from the kerosene industry, its producers were happy to sell it at a price that gave them a healthy profit. With the production and transport infrastructure already in place to take kerosene to market, moving drums of petrol, or gasoline, was a simple addition to the product line.
Gasoline sold for years at 5 cents a gallon. Electricity, where
it was available, sold for up to 40 cents a kilowatt-hour. The final blow was
struck by Henry Ford in 1908, when the low-priced, mass-produced, no-amenities
Model T swept through the automotive market, flaunting the Seldon patent. This was
a vehicle so basic that from April 1909 on, it did not even have a water pump.
Sales of the battery-electrics for the mainstream automotive market started to sink
almost immediately in 1908. Sales of industrial and delivery vehicles, and high-end automotive market sales lasted somewhat longer.
1911 marks the zenith for the gasoline car. Acetylene lamps, gravity-feed fuel systems, band brakes, and speeds up to 20 mph. The only contribution electricity makes to its operation is the spark magneto that fires the plugs to ignite the fuel. Only the Diesel engine manages to dispense with that, and even it typically needs a glow-plug to get things going. After that, the transformation into the electric car began. The first step was a small thing to be sure - the starter motor appeared in 1912. It was seen by many as a great start forward for the gasoline engine. Doing away with hand-cranking permitted bigger engines and higher compression which provided for more power in the same displacement.
But far from being the death-blow for battery-electrics, as some ICE-friendly revisionists would
have us believe, it was the first step in the revival of the electric car after it
had been knocked out by the Model T 4 years earlier. Note that the Model T did not
have a starter motor, even as an option, until the 1919 model year, and on many
Model T's, the hand crank remained standard equipment until 1926. Production of
Model T cars ended the following year, in 1927. Clearly, the electric starter was
As surely as the Model T killed the electric car, the electricized car killed the Model T. Electrical accessories and the starter motor rendered the Tin Lizzie passé. Even the Model T's immediate successor, the Model A, had an electric starter, battery, and electric lighting, as standard equipment. In another transport sector, the railways were moving away from steam to electric and diesel-electric.
Even the 1930's did not provide a serious challenge to the internal combustion
engine. When gasoline was unavailable or unaffordable in the "Dirty Thirties", the
occasional enterprising farmer would hitch up one of his few remaining horses and
pull it around like a carriage, the "Bennett buggy". Rural electrification came
too late to provide the standardization, infrastructure and affordable pricing the
early electric car needed to be a real success. Car radios added to the
The 1970's brought the OPEC petro-pinches. Fuel economy became an issue in the face of gasoline rationing not seen before in peacetime, and lines at the gas pumps. Fuel efficient cars were in demand, and when North American car makers would not deliver them to consumers, Japanese and European manufacturers were happy to fill the demand. Smog became so bad that even the American federal government was moved to start measuring fuel economy and automotive emissions. Battery-electrics just wouldn't go away - more than 2,200 Sebring-Vanguard CitiCars were produced and sold.
Some minor attempts at fuel economy for ICEs appeared. 8-track
tapes gave way to cassette tapes, as radiator fan belts gave way to thermostatically-controlled, electric radiator fans. Electric fuel pumps appeared. Wire-grid rear-window defrosters replaced inconvenient scraping. Pintos reminded
us of the implications of carrying large quantities of highly flammable liquids
around with us. EGR valves and catalytic converters appeared as band-aids for
Electronic equipment was more sensitive to voltage dips and spikes, so voltage regulation became more critical. Better batteries were deployed, and better meant bigger. More wire nestled into wiring harnesses to feed the computers with power, input and things to control. On-board computers now knew how much fuel was on board, how much was being consumed, temperatures outside the vehicle and in the engine compartment, and could report the current rate of fuel consumption and expected range remaining based on fuel remaining, driver behavior and current rate of consumption.
More importantly, early in the decade, fuel shortages and higher gasoline prices were encouraging us
to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles. But increasing numbers of vehicles, and miles
driven per vehicle were outweighing the minor gains in fuel economy and emissions
reductions. Environmentally, we were still losing ground. And the late 1980's
brought another key player - the minivan. Suburban North America was soon over-run
by the new blight. Fuel consumption rose accordingly. Competition-class sound
systems required more electrical power, and heavy-duty alternators appeared in
smaller vehicles, and more battery came on-board. We learned about acid rain and
CFC's. Desert Storm no longer meant sand blowing in the wind, but rather oil paid
The appliance count in a fully-equipped minivan or SUV rivaled that of the average household. Actually, most houses didn't have power windows or door locks or remote starters or GPS systems. The inevitable consequence of this ever-increasing demand for electrical power inside these living rooms on wheels? Bigger alternators and bigger batteries, and more wiring and electronics on-board. Battery-electrics remained visible in the rearview mirror, and appeared to be gaining ground.
The EV-1 escaped from General Motors to a very limited
market, but even GM could not hide the success of this vehicle. Waiting lists appeared for the car GM would not
market. Ford had a similar problem with their Ranger EV, and were outmaneuvered by
a European government, and ended up owning a small, but viable, electric car
company (PIVCO) and their key product, the Th!nk City. The 1990's also brought
recognition that greenhouse gases and global climate change were a reality, at
least to the insurance industry. And Kyoto came to mean more than the name of a
city in Japan.
The oil wars have reached onto the home front. Weather systems continue to become more severe,
hurricane season has extended to May, and El Niño has become part of our new
lexicon. Ford continues to try to deny the inevitable, and has announced it will
stop production of the Th!nk Neighbor battery-electric and not produce the North
American version of the Th!nk City at all (August 2002).
Ironically, global climate change, one of the
very problems that will encourage the adoption of electric cars, may also provide
some of the energy to charge them. Increased energy in the atmosphere resulting
from greenhouse gas induced warming will be expressed in part in higher wind
speeds, making wind turbines effective in even more areas than they are now.
It's your planet. If you won't look after it, who will?