EVs Were More Popular Than Gas Cars a Century Ago, But They Couldn’t Avoid This Big Problem
“… There is no new thing under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9.
So it is with electric vehicles. EVs gained popularity some 120 years ago but range, lack of infrastructure, and purchase price stifled them.
But in 1899 there were more electric vehicles recorded in the U.S than gasoline-powered, 1,575 vs. 936, according to Quartz.
Now, driven by government mandate, climate hysteria, and perhaps some aspects of consumer status EVs are on the scene again.
But they still have essentially the same big problem they did around the turn of the last century: The infrustructure of the country is not set up to accommodate them, because they don’t fit the needs of the country nearly as well as gasoline-powered vehicles.
Right about the beginning of the 20th century, horseless carriages were emerging as novelties, transports for the rich, and quickly adopted as necessities for doctors making urgent home visits.
Three forms of automobile engines vied in that era for dominance: electric, steam, and gasoline.
Experiments with battery-powered wagons had taken place in Europe and the United States from at least the 1830s, notes a history of electric cars compiled by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Des Moines, Iowa, chemist William Morrison is credited with the first successful EV in the U.S. In 1890 his 14-passenger wagon could go 14 mph. The concept quickly caught on and within a few years, New York had 60 electric taxis scooting about.
Steam was also considered because, given its decades-long success on railroads and in marine and industrial applications, it was familiar and tested. In fact, in 1899, it was the most popular form of automobile propulsion with 1,681 units recorded.
But one could not just jump in a steam car and go – it could take perhaps 45 minutes to raise the needed steam pressure and there would be frequent stops to replenish the water supply.
Gasoline engines were noisy, smelly, and could even be dangerous to start since required hand cranking could misfire the engine and possibly break an arm.
As a result, electric vehicles increased in popularity and, depending on sources, at the beginning of the 20th century, battery-powered electric motors propelled between 28 and 37 percent of all U.S. automobiles.
Electrics were ideal for urban environments where there was a dense network of city streets. EVs ran clean and quiet and had generally good access to recharging via the urban electrical grid. Their limited range presented few problems in local city driving.
Also, because they required no boiler firing or hand cranking of engines, their simplicity of operation made EVs popular with women, according to Quartz.
But several developments brought the soon demise of the EV. First was price — Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908 and four years later it sold for an unheard of $650 compared to an electric car at $1,750.
Also, in 1912, the inventor Charles Kettering came up with the electric starter, thus removing the hazardous need for hand cranking and one of the attractions of the EV.
Discovery of massive Texas oil fields made gasoline available to rural areas, many of them without electricity. Major aspects of a petroleum distribution system were already in place stemming from monopolistic Standard Oil’s earlier production of kerosene for lighting.
With the low cost of a Model T and developing highways and fuel distribution systems, rural drivers could only consider internal combustion engines for cars, trucks, and even tractors.
It was petroleum that powered most of the 20th century’s automobiles, trucks, trains, barges, and aircraft.
True, in the 1970s, skyrocketing fuel costs and shortages prompted some development of small EVs for urban use. But focused engineering raised gasoline mileage to offset those fuel costs and EVs again faded away.
Transportation modes respond to market demands. Or at least they should. But currently, non-market forces are pushing attempts to resurrect EVs.
Now, we’re told, we will all be assimilated into the EV future, whether it makes sense or not. California, of course, is leading the way, as it usually does in such things, banning new gas-powered vehicles by 2035.
And corporations are falling in line.
But like the early automobile days, the problems of high per-unit costs of EVs and lack of infrastructure remain. And there are performance issues not considered in 1900.
Even if Tesla EVs can operate more cheaply than Accord Hybrids, it’s not on a market-driven playing field. Gasoline prices have been artificially increased by efforts of the Biden administration, which, in turn, has pointed to rising gas prices as incentives toward electric cars.
But for whom?
Purchase price, car payments, and insurance rates may put Tesla Model 3 EVs out of the range of the average middle-class car buyer who now has no Henry Ford to develop an alternative.
Then comes infrastructure. Power generation in Texas has been a problem and power shortages in California have resulted in government asking motorists to not charge the electric cars the state is mandating for the near future
The only enthusiasm leftist EV advocates hold toward power generation is from unreliable wind and solar sources. How can a switch to EVs with resulting millions of new draws from generating capability even seem possible?
Besides generating capacity shortages, the electric grid in many areas of the country would require massive upgrades to provide adequate EV charging.
As early EVs were limited to urban areas, current EVs are demonstrating limited performance capabilities in tasks such as pulling loads. And range issues are a problem, too.
There were good reasons for urban EVs in 1900 – convenience, available infrastructure, the aesthetics of sound and smell, and the accommodation of the needs and preferences of women. The market reflected that.
But mass production techniques and more suitability to infrastructure brought the internal combustion engine to the forefront for the rest of the century. Technological improvements have also provided emissions reductions since the 1970s.
With today’s highly fuel-efficient internal combustion vehicles and a more than adequate oil supply choked and made more expensive only by political ignorance or opportunism, the technology and market sensibilities still point to gasoline, diesel, and perhaps natural gas.
There may be suitable EVs for limited urban applications, such as mail and parcel carriers and short, local passenger car trips. And hybrid cars can provide gasoline savings in stop-and-go city driving.
Otherwise, free markets should allow internal combustion engines dominance. They can keep the world moving until careful long-term research not driven by ideology might provide new technology to generate power, distribute it, and perhaps use it to make cars and trucks go.
But the current problems with EVs can be seen by looking back 100 or so years. As so often happens, there is nothing new under the sun.
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.
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