Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Will Electric Cars Rule? If So, When?

1899 -- "La Jamais Contente"
"Nothing ages so quickly as yesterday's vision of the future."
~ Richard Corliss

About two decades ago I was looking through the 36-page car section of a Popular Mechanics when the following article by Roger Huntington caught my eye: “How Far Can We Go With The Piston Engine?”  The article begins like this. “An early death for the age-old internal combustion piston engine is the prediction of some people.  They say the exhaust can’t be cleaned up enough to meet future air-pollution and antismog laws and that we’ll be running around with batteries, steam, fuel cells and atomic engines in another ten years.”  

This was written in 1969. Seems to me these words could have been written in ‘79 or ’89 or ’99.  Or even yesterday. Is this picture of the near future more relevant today than it was then? For sure the EV has come a very long way. 


1895 -- The Thomas Parker Electric Car
One way to get a perspective is to look back to the first days of automobile transportation.  Did you know that electric cars were the rage then as well?  

When first developed, the internal combustion engine 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 soon on its way out.  

During this same time period carriages were also being powered by fuel cells. As early as 1842 an electric road vehicle was powered by 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” was clocked at 68 miles per hour, setting a world land speed record. 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. 

EdNote: There were even some deaths caused when a car in a garage lurched forward, causing the man turning the crank to be crushed against the back of the garage.

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.    


It was only a matter of time before the internal combustion engine would overpower the electric motor. Times were changing and America’s sprawling highway network was beginning to unfold. Motorists needed a car that could go the distance. Gas power was also helped by the discovery of Texas crude oil, making gasoline abundant and affordable. Gasoline filling stations sprang up not because of government subsidies, but because people wanted to take advantage of this new opportunity to make a profit. 

Charles Kettering’s invention of the electric starter in 1912 had a big impact on the desirability of gas powered cars, and Henry Ford’s mass production processes brought the price down to where almost anyone could afford these vehicles. A gas-powered Ford, at $650, became far more desirable than an electric roadster that cost over a thousand dollars more.


I cite the Pop Mechanics article because it has a direct bearing upon our expectations regarding the future of electric vehicles. This past week Robert Bryce made a presentation to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee regarding EV hype in the media in general and some of the impediments to rapid EV adoption. By rapid I mean ten years from now. 

Bryce began by reciting the numerous examples over the past 100 years in which the media has announced the imminent death of gasoline-powered vehicles because EVs were on the rise. The last of these was Tony Seba's prophesy that "by 2025 gasoline engines will be unable to compete with electric vehicles."

Naturally our government wants to run roughshod over what the public wants, creating mandates to force this shift. It ought to be obvious that we're not ready.

Tesla sales have been dramatic, but who is buying Teslas? Wealthy people who can afford a second car to take vacations in because EVs still don't have the range that gas-powered cars have.

What prompted Bryce to speak up at this Senate hearing was an EPE mandate being proposed "that would require two-thrds of new vehicles sold in the U.S. to be all-electric by 2032."

So, auto manufacturers will be forced, coerced, to fill their lots with EVs. But will Americans buy them? 

It's a solid, fact-filled read with lots of charts and data. I would encourge you to check it out. You can find it here: My U.S. Senate Testimony On EPA's EV Mandates: "Unrealistic And Unattainable"

Robert Bryce is author of Power Hungry: The Myths Of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels Of The Future,

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