Thursday, January 04, 2007

Does Mourning Become the Electric? 2: The Fall and Resurrection of the Electric Automobile


In 1900, electricity powered 38 percent of the automobiles built in the United States. Electric cars far surpassed the modest 22 percent figure for gasoline-powered vehicles, and edged close to the 40 percent enjoyed by steam cars, the most popular. Yet only a few years later, gasoline supplanted both steam and electricity as the motive power of choice. Gasoline-powered cars preempted speed records that had belonged to electrics. The stiff, staid electric became "milady's automobile," before disappearing almost completely.

A century ago, electric carmakers touted the electric's safety--drivers of gasoline vehicles often suffered serious injury when cranking their engines. Buyers of electrics were assured of low operating cost and cleanliness, with an absence of noise, vibration, heat and odor. Electrics offered simplicity of construction combined with elegance of design, ease of control, and economy of power.

Never mentioned, however, were obvious disadvantages: Their disproportionate battery weight, limited range of operation (between 50 and 80 miles), inherent danger in handling acid and electricity, and the special facilities needed for recharging batteries. The latter were important. No electric owner would venture very far without first checking on the availability of recharging facilities. These were usually at electricity generating plants, and the occasional garage specializing in electric vehicles.

Steam, electricity's main competitor, had its own drawbacks. When the cumbersome steam vehicles of the previous century were improved, the engine was made lighter. Steam pressures were also increased to about 600 pounds per square inch. The addition of flash boilers cut the time required to get up a sufficient head of steam--from 20 minutes to two minutes.

Stanley Steamers were built in North Tarrytown (now Sleepy Hollow), N.Y., by the Mobile Company of America, owned by John Brisbane Walker, publisher of Cosmopolitan Magazine. His Mobile Wagonette factory was housed in a building said to have been designed by Stanford White. After 1904, the Maxwell--famously the car of comedian Jack Benny--was built there. Until recently, the site housed the now-demolished General Motors assembly plant.

Although the electric vehicle found favor with the public, it got low marks from experts. Thomas A. Edison, interviewed by a reporter from The New York World, made a rash prediction. "Ten years from now you will be able to buy a horseless vehicle for what you would have to pay today for a wagon and a pair of horses, and the danger to life will be much reduced."

"Will these vehicles be run by electricity?" the reporter asked. "I don't think so," was the frank appraisal of the "Wizard of Menlo Park." He continued, "As it looks at present, it would seem more likely that they will be run by a gasoline or naptha motor of some kind," Hedging his bet, he added, "It is quite possible, however, that an electrical storage battery will be discovered that will prove more economical, but at present the gasoline or naptha motor looks more promising."

Edison had been vainly trying to develop a low-cost, high-energy battery. Other than his too sanguine prediction about the automobile's reduction in the loss of life, Mr. Edison was right about the future role of the internal combustion engine. Professor Elihu Thomson, a prodigious inventor of electrical devices in his own right, expressed a different opinion. He favored steam as the best power source for motor vehicles, calling the storage battery "an unmitigated nuisance." Steam vehicles had their limitations, he acknowledged. They needed water every 30 miles and fuel every 40 miles. He even conceded that, on occasion, boilers could--and did--explode.

Portents of Trouble
Mass production methods eventually lowered the price of gasoline automobiles, leaving the pricey electric the preferred vehicle of the rich. Advertisements stressed its exclusiveness. Gasoline automobiles responded to the influence of European design and moved the engine from under the driver's seat to the forward part of the car, adding a sturdy, protective body. Electrics stubbornly continued to display their coaching antecedents. Many retained the traditional stagecoach body that rode cradled between the wheels on stout springs.

Gasoline automobiles became longer and sleeker, while electrics seemed to become taller and even more sedate looking. The story that the height of the electric automobile was dictated by the requirement that a man be able to enter one wearing an opera hat is apocryphal. Despite the electric automobile's advantages, sales declined rapidly from their 1900 high-water mark. Of the 21,692 automobiles built in the United States in 1905, 86.2 percent were powered by gasoline, steam accounted for 7.2 percent and electricity only for 6.6 percent.

Improvements largely accounted for this spurt in the gasoline automobile's numbers. American iron foundries abandoned the shaft-type cupola furnace for the reverberatory furnace in which the material being treated is heated indirectly by a flame directed downward from the roof. This enabled the production of a better grade of iron for cylinder castings. The unreliable "hot tube" ignition of early gasoline engines gave way to electric ignition. And the discovery of the Spindletop gusher in Texas and other prodigious oil fields assured a seemingly unlimited supply of motor fuel.

By 1908 the prospects for manufacturers of electrics who had survived the financial panic of the previous year were dim. Electrics continued to decline in popularity and then made a surprising turnabout. Sales figures leveled off and soon began to rise.

Improvements in Electrics
Manufacturers of electrics decided to stop competing with gasoline-powered cars for the touring market. Instead, they emphasized the economy and dependability of the electric, especially for short runs. Subtle changes also were introduced. The first electric automobiles had married carriage-building practice to--of all things--streetcar technology. They were merely carriage bodies with wheels propelled by modified streetcar motors.

The rear axle usually had the wheels solidly fixed to it, with the wheel and axle combination revolving as a unit. The motor was suspended under the body toward the rear and geared to this revolving axle. An early refinement was a fixed rear axle with a motor driving each rear wheel. As in gasoline automobiles, chain drive was popular. Early electric models had a single chain drive to the revolving rear axle. This eventually gave way to chains on both sides.

From 1901, various forms of shaft-driven electrics were also available--one model had a double universal-jointed propeller shaft connected to the rear axle by a bevel gear built into the rear axle. By 1910, chain drive began to be replaced by shaft drive, with its attendant simplicity and silence. Eventually, worm gearing gave electrics smooth and responsive acceleration that no gasoline vehicle could match. Battery equipment could include as many as 40 lead-acid cells. Unlike the batteries of today's gasoline automobiles used only for starting, lighting and ignition, they were of heavier construction and therefore more expensive.

Electrics continued to be steered with an old-fashioned boatlike horizontal tiller. Manufacturers of electrics insisted on calling it a "control lever." A switching device for linking battery cells in various combinations governed forward and reverse speeds. A few electrics featured rear-seat steering that permitted operation from the back seat. The sight of a seemingly driverless vehicle heading toward them could be disconcerting to unknowing pedestrians and oncoming drivers.

Early electrics came with pneumatic tires, but the excessive weights of cars and batteries caused frequent blowouts. Tires were changed to solid tires, deceptively called "cushion tires." Eventually tire manufacturers developed a pneumatic tire able to withstand the weight of electrics.

Because large engines did not take up their front ends, electrics enjoyed an advantage over their gasoline-powered rivals. Narrower front ends permitted a smaller turning radius. Some manufacturers of electrics eventually moved part of the battery load under a shortened front hood for better weight distribution.

The Power Industry Wakes Up
During the electric automobile's early years, the electric power industry neglected its market potential. Awakening suddenly to its possibilities, an industry group, the Electric Vehicle Association of America (EVAA), was formed in 1910. Drawing members from utility company executives, battery manufacturers and electric vehicle builders, it set out to boost the use of electric vehicles. Embarking on an ambitious promotional program, EVAA member companies replaced their gasoline trucks with electric trucks prominently displaying slogans extolling the advantages of electricity. "If it isn't electric, it isn't modern," boasted the trucks of the Philadelphia Electric Company.

Industries faced with continuous stop-and-go driving were prime candidates for electrics. "When an electric stops, it stops all over," was the way one proponent put it. Electric delivery wagons became popular with breweries, bakeries, department stores and handlers of freight--express companies, railroads and steamship lines. Heavier electric vehicles were also available: trucks, theater buses, omnibuses and even ambulances. An electric ambulance sped a mortally wounded President illiam McKinley to a Buffalo, N.Y., emergency hospital that fatal Friday in September 1901. The EVAA also made touring in an electric less haphazard by publishing regional guides with route maps and directories of charging stations.

If there was one thing an operator of an electric vehicle feared it was being caught away from recharging equipment with a set of dead batteries. Operators of electrics frequently checked the charge on their batteries with hydrometers, especially before starting a trip. One enterprising owner of an electric, H.W. Biddle, a carriage builder of Ravenna, Ohio, overcame the dead battery problem in ingenious fashion. He carried a pair of carriage shafts slung on the underside of his electric. If his car's batteries went dead, Mr. Biddle hired a horse from a nearby stable, hitched it up and drove home.

Harold E. Dey, a New York builder of electrics, described a novel method of recharging a battery, "When going on a long journey I will probably carry a jointed fish pole with a spring clip at the end. In case of running short I can spring this on a trolley wire and recharge it in a short time, using a water rheostat to control the voltage." Mr. Dey did not explain what he proposed to do if a trolley car came along during his recharging operation. For the benefit of those who might question the ethics of helping himself to electricity, he hastened to add: "Of course, I would reimburse the trolley company."

A Golden Age
If the electric automobile had a Golden Age, it was in the three years leading up to 1912. In October of that year, according to the magazine The Automobile, 33,842 electric pleasure cars were registered in the United States. New registrations for the year totaled 5,550, an annual growth rate of 20 percent. But 1912 was also a watershed year. Cadillac's 1912 models featured the self-starter as standard equipment. The following year, 50 other manufacturers adopted it. Brainchild of Charles F. Kettering, the self-starter effectively sealed the fate of the electric. No longer could dealers who sold electrics use the dangerous hand crank of a gasoline engine as a clinching sales argument.

A survey of the electric pleasure vehicles of 1912 reveals an interesting contrast. Twenty manufacturers offered 94 electric models. Some 40 manufacturers offered 404 gasoline models. At the low end among electrics was a two-seater Studebaker electric runabout. The well-known South Bend carriage-building company first experimented with electrics in 1898 and offered its first electric automobile in 1902. At the high end of the price range was a Hupp-Yeats Imperial limousine, built by a company that had been in existence only a year. Most electric models now used shaft drive, with chain drive and then direct gearing next in popularity. For 1912's electrics, the Exide battery, manufactured by the Electric Storage Battery Company of Philadelphia, was almost exclusively the battery of choice. This company held a virtual monopoly on lead-acid battery technology in the United States. Diehl, General Electric or Westinghouse supplied electric motors.

Electric automobile advertising of the period continued to emphasize the distinction of owning an electric. Dowager leaders of society, operatic divas and movie starlets were pictured alighting from the electric of their choice. It was an advertising campaign that backfired, however. The electric soon gained the reputation of being "a woman's car." To counter this, manufacturers enlisted the big names of the electrical world. Thomas A. Edison was frequently photographed in his Baker electric. General Electric's electrical genius Charles P. Steinmetz favored the Detroit electric.

Deformed from birth, Steinmetz had to drive in a kneeling position. Although he could wend his way through the most complicated mathematical equations, the quick-tempered, cigar-smoking Steinmetz could never master his machine. After a few hairbreadth near-accidents, he wisely turned the tiller over to his lab assistant and lifelong companion, Joseph LeRoy Hayden, later adopted by Steinmetz as his son.

In 1913, the trade magazine Ignition and Accessories jumped on the electric bandwagon and announced that it was changing its name to Electric Vehicles. As the unofficial journal of the electric vehicle industry, its pages teemed with trade news, occasionally enlivened by articles such as "The History of the Electric Wheel Chair" or accounts of "sociability runs" by society matrons in their electrics to a nearby restaurant for tea.

Two Wars and their Aftermaths
In 1914, American automobile manufacturers produced 568,000 vehicles. Internal combustion engines propelled approximately 99 percent of these. The First World War, which began that year, brought with it shortages of raw materials--another blow to the already-tottering electric vehicle industry and one from which it did not recover. Although the electric vehicle industry was encouraged by the prediction that gasoline prices soon would go to 40 cents a gallon, this was cold comfort when electric vehicle companies began to fold. Between 1914 and 1918, many respected electric automobile names disappeared

Hit just as hard by shortages and wartime priorities, the gasoline motorcar industry scarcely faltered in its production for civilian consumption. The war did not affect the industry until 1918--the first year gasoline motorcar production failed to exceed that of the year before. Not surprisingly, 1918's gasoline engine output for military trucks and aircraft more than made up deficits, helping to keep the gasoline vehicle industry healthy.

In its January 1918 issue, the magazine Electric Vehicles was still valiantly beating the drums for the electric automobile. Advertisers were few--among them an enterprising soul who offered for sale a list of the names and addresses of 1,400 automobile owners in Bexar County, Texas. The Hawkeye Battery Company of Dubuque, Iowa, offered a battery charger for sale. In that issue, A. Jackson Marshall, secretary of the National Light Association (which had absorbed the now-defunct EVAA) commented on "The Electric Vehicle Situation," calling "the gains permanent, the outlook bright."

Mr. Jackson was whistling in the dark. The February 1918 issue of Electric Vehicles never appeared--it, too, was a casualty. Electric vehicle manufacturers continued to drop away. By 1924, not one electric (or steam car, for that matter) was to be seen at the National Automobile Show. Four years later, only two electric manufacturers were left: Detroit and Rauch & Lang, builders of the Raulang electric automobile. The Raulang died in 1928, but the Detroit would survive until the late 1930s.

Electric trucks, however, continued to serve industry and proved their worth when gasoline was scarce during World War II. Those drivers who had stubbornly held onto their electrics laughed at gas ration books. Owners of gasoline-powered vehicles scurried to snap up the few electrics on the used car market. In Europe, too, where the gasoline shortage was even more critical, interest in electrics surged during the war. England, France, Germany and the Netherlands all built and operated electric vehicles during the war years, sparking a surprising postwar interest.

The years since 1945 have seen a spate of experimental electric cars. How to give the electric automobile enough power to go long distances without adding excessive weight or bulk still remains the basic problem. The horses that befouled America's cities are gone now. In their place, however, are more than 200 million internal combustion engines belching forth their own wastes, their supply of fuel subject to the political vagaries of the explosive Middle East. Storage battery technology, too, has come a long way since that day in May of 1882 when the French liner Labrador landed the first shipment of French electrical "accumulateurs" in New York. It still has a long way to go.

To this day, storage batteries remain the bĂȘte noire of the electric automobile. Not only are lead-acid batteries heavy, but also their energy density is low--from 8 to 12 watts per pound--and their operating life (measured by the number of recharges possible) is small. Other types of batteries with higher energy densities and longer operating lives come with prohibitive costs.

The Future of Electrics
On a cloudy December morning in 1996, a clutch of celebrities assembled in Los Angeles to take delivery of the first mass-produced electric cars manufactured since before the First World War. and leased to them by General Motors. General Motors had first named their long-awaited battery-powered car the Impact, an unfortunate choice later changed to the EV1. Leased to them by GM, the EV1's lucky drivers included Jay Leno, Tonight Show host and classic car aficionado, and long-legged Baywatch actress and conservationist Alexandra Paul. After the reporters and photographers had departed in their gasoline-powered cars, the new EV1 owners were left with their $35,000 prizes, two-seaters of limited range and versatility.

Despite having consumed millions of dollars in research money, like the electrics of a century before the EV1 could travel only 50 to 80 miles before needing a recharge, which could take from four to eight hours. When residents of California--the most environmentally conscious state in the Union--failed to snap up GM's electric car, the company suspended manufacture of the EV1. Honda, long an industry leader in environmental improvements, also announced it would stop selling it electric minivan, the EV Plus.

Until a lightweight battery of high energy density and low cost is developed, only a small market for lead-acid battery electrics will exist--most likely in urban areas where traffic congestion limits speed or for users with much stop-and-go driving, such as package delivery, mail carrier routes, and golf carts and industrial forklifts. Electrics will never make their owners guilt-free, since electricity is still mostly generated in plants fueled by coal, petroleum or natural gas.

Of Hybrids and Fuel Cells
Appropriately called "hybrid cars," a new player has entered the game. Combining internal combustion with electrical propulsion, these run on gasoline from today's filling stations and never need to be taken out of service for recharging. With its two engines, the hybrid offers the best of both worlds. When a hybrid car accelerates, both engines operate in tandem to provide maximum horsepower. At cruising speed, when power demand is low, only the piston engine operates. When the driver steps on the brakes, the electric motor runs in reverse, exerting a braking effect and recharging the batteries.

The Toyota Prius, a hybrid compact sedan has a conventional steel body and weighs 2,800 pounds. Its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rating is 52 mpg city and 45 mpg highway. Honda's tiny Insight, a three-door, two-seat hybrid coupe, weighs a mere 2,000 pounds (it has an aluminum frame and ultra-light body panels) and is rated by the EPA at an amazing 61 mpg in city driving and 70 mpg on the highway. Honda also offers the Honda Civic hybrid, a compact sedan weighing 2,732 pounds. Its EPA rating is 46 mpg city and 51 mpg highway.

Today's hybrids cost more than their conventional counterparts. The difference can be offset in part by a federal income tax credit of up to $2,000 as a clean-fuel vehicle. Qualified hybrid vehicles (including the Toyota and Honda models) registered in New York also qualify for a $2,000 state income tax credit.

Although hybrids will not totally insulate us from the tyranny of OPEC (the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), by helping to reduce our gasoline consumption they are steps in the right direction. Surprisingly, the hybrid idea has been around for a long time. In 1916, the Woods gasoline-electric coupe was introduced. It boasted a four-cylinder gasoline 12-horsepower engine, an electric motor and an Exide battery half the usual size. Called the "Dual Power," its engine could be used to charge the battery or run the car. Among its features were regenerative coasting and braking, and the ability to preset cruising speed (cruise control, as it is known today). Its selling price was $2,750, and only a few were sold.

The hydrogen fuel cell, now seen as the most likely successor to the storage battery, is still not practical for general use. It has performed well in America's space program, where cost is no object. The principle of the fuel cell has been known for 168 years--ever since Sir William Grove displayed the first model in 1839. Grove made an educated guess. He reasoned that if an electric current can cause water to separate into its component gases, hydrogen and oxygen, perhaps combining these two gases could generate water and electricity. His surmise was correct. Amazingly, in turning two of the most abundant elements into enough energy to power an automobile, no toxic emissions are generated. The only by-product is water fit to drink.

In his 2003 State of the Union message, President George W. Bush proposed funding $1.2 billion so that "America can lead the world in developing hydrogen-powered automobiles." This is more smoke and mirrors. While $1.2 billion sounds like a lot, it's really only $720 million on top of what has already been allocated for such research--and it's spread over the next five years. "It's better than nothing, but it's also a drop in the bucket," said Mark Bunger, senior auto-industry analyst for Forrester Research. "The number--$1.2 billion--that's about what it would cost an automaker to develop one new car, like a Ford Taurus. This is not such a shot in the arm that it's going to hurtle the Americans ahead of the Japanese."

We can also forget about leading the world; the Japanese have already beaten us to the punch. In December 2002, Toyota and Honda became the first automakers to bring hydrogen vehicles to the U.S. market, leasing them to the city of Los Angeles and the University of California. Meanwhile, American automakers are still tinkering with their prototypes.

Cars powered by fuel cells are still decades away. In the same way that electric automobiles needed an infrastructure to provide recharging facilities, fuel-cell cars will need a similar hydrogen fuel network. Hydrogen is still four times as expensive as gasoline. Fuel cells are ten times more expensive to build than a gasoline engine. Today, hydrogen is produced in a process that requires the burning of fossil fuels.

Remedying the government's failure to impose realistic mileage goals on gas-guzzling light trucks and SUV's would actually yield more immediate benefits. Not only do these top-heavy behemoths pour excessive pollution into the atmosphere, they are rapidly becoming the most dangerous of vehicles.

Our Shameful Appetite for Oil
The basic weakness of the internal combustion engine is its thermal inefficiency--only a quarter of the BTU's in a gallon of gasoline is translated into motion. The other three-quarters are lost in braking and as heat dissipated by the engine and radiator. Seventy-five cents of every dollar we spend for gasoline is wasted. Keep that in mind the next time you fill up at the gas pump. With less than 5 percent of the world's population, the United States has more than half the world's automobiles, consuming the lion's share of petroleum resources in our obscene oil gluttony.

From a barrel of crude oil, a host of useful substances can be created: pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, paints, adhesives, plastics, synthetic fibers and fabrics, solvents, lubricants, fertilizers--you name it. Yet we burn it selfishly, as if the supply were endless. Future generations will surely despise us for our profligate destruction of the planet's finite petroleum resources.

Our excessive consumption of oil is a stench that no protestations of entitlement, or free enterprise, or contrition, or any other fair word can turn to sweetness. Nor has the government done enough to discourage our flagrant use of fossil fuel. It spends more to subsidize fossil fuels and nuclear energy than it does for research into fuel cells, wind or other forms of renewable energy. President Bush's energy plan, for example, still calls for spending $2 billion to support a classic oxymoron--so-called "clean coal." In contrast, the European Union has increased its expenditures on renewable energy research.

America's early leadership in wind- and solar-energy has been frittered away by successive administrations. Today, the largest producers of wind energy are the Danes, and the leaders in solar energy are the Japanese and the Europeans. The question, therefore, is whether America will continue to be the superstate serving supercorporations, with self-interest, greed and waste as cardinal, and ultimately self-destructive, values. Within our grasp is an alternative future characterized by a true sense of community and expanded democracy--a world free from the selfish materialism and mindless pursuit and exploitation of nonrenewable natural resources. All we need to reach this goal is determination, intelligence and collective effort.

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