Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Gas Taxes and Electric Cars

While in L.A. last week I was at dinner with someone in the auto aftermarket who made the comment that "the internal combustion engine will be with us a long time because gasoline is the cheapest form of power." Oil is a plentiful commodity still, and the research has led many to believe the center of the earth is full of it, hence in many places emptied oil wells have refilled afterwards.

This person said one reason gasoline is expensive, on the other hand, is because of taxes. I don't know how true that is, but I do know that any transition to electric cars will be exceedingly expensive due to the lack of infrastructure.

Most people do not recall that in 1900 there was a battle going on regarding the primary power source for cars. As many as fifty percent of all cars were electric. Did you know that? The problem is that they only went about twenty miles before needing the battery re-charged. And where would you get that re-charge if you tried to go from New York to Boston?

The first internal combustion engines did not take the motoring public by storm. Though many inventors produced various designs for this novel approach to mobility, Gottlieb Daimler is often credited with developing the first prototype of the modern gas engine, including a vertical cylinder with gasoline injected through a carburetor. A year later, in 1886, Karl Benz obtained the first patent for a gas fueled car and the horseless carriage was on its way.

The first battery powered carriages were introduced as early as the 1840's with a non-rechargeable battery. Improvements in the battery made battery-powered vehicles increasingly practical, and by 1899 there were more electric cars on the road in Britain and France than there were gas powered vehicles. In the late 1890's there was even a New York City taxi fleet composed of electric cars.

Electric cars were quieter, cleaner, and offered a much more pleasant motoring experience. And they could run at a pretty decent clip as well. In 1899 a Belgian built electric car called "La Jamais Contente" (image at left) was clocked at 68 miles per hour, setting a world land speed record. This very car was on display at the Detroit Auto Show last week. The gas powered counterpart was a hand-cranked contraption that smelled, vibrated a lot and made a lot of noise. The hardest part of all was changing gears, which you didn't have to do in an electric car.

Electric vehicles did have their limitations. First, they were expensive. Second, they had a range of less than 20 miles, which became problematic in a wide open country like the United States.

I am guessing that gasoline has another advantage. Because it can be taxed, it just might be the ticket for funding our universal health care program. When you look at the cost of hybrids and re-charging stations, a high gas tax on users of fuel just might make some dollars, and sense.

Just a thought.

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