Book Review

Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile In America by M.B.Schiffer
Publisher: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1994. ISBN 1-56098-355-8

From Newsgroup "Some books about earlier EVs v ICVs wars" by Bruce Hamilton, Nov 26 1996

"This is an entertaining, nostalgic review of the EV in USA. What stands out to my undoubtably biased eye is the similarity of the 1910s and 20s promotional literature ( when the EV was failing ), with what we have heard in the 1990s. Perhaps people today don't understand how the US public revered Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, both of whom invested heavily and promised to improve EVs... On June 2nd 1911 The Detroit Free Press reported,

"Thomas A. Edison thinks he has now invented the storage battery that will overcome the three main objections to the one now in use; weight, bulk and length of time required to charge them. The new battery that he has been working on for months is so light that one large enough to run a butcher wagon can be put into a suit-case. It can be charged in four or five minutes he says."

For those unversed in history, Edison improved the Nickel/Iron battery in 1907 ( using alternate layers of nickel flake and nickel hydrate as the cathode, with a small quantity of lithium hydroxide added to the electrolyte), and iron anode. One major problem that still had to be overcome was a high self-discharge rate with consequent production of gaseous H2. The highly-promoted nickel metal hydride of Ovonics is a technological descendant of Edison's. It is an electrolyte of potassium hydroxide ( with a trace of lithium hydroxide ) with sintered hydrated nickel positive electrode and a metal hydride of AB2 or AB5 type as the anode.

Of course both Ford and Edison believed they could solve the "battery problem" of EVs, but both failed, and the development and installation of the electric self-starter for the ICE (developed by Charles Kettering, and installed first on the 1912 Cadillac, becoming a huge marketing success that outstripped initial starter production facilities, and yes I know about the pneumatic self-starter on the 1910 Winton, but it wasn't a success) meant that the last bastion of EV customers had gone (wealthy women and night-time socialites were the major purchasers from 1910-40).

The new electrical systems provided ICVs with most of the features of the available EVs (erratic vacuum-operated windscreen wipers stayed on some ICVs until the 1950s). Yes, EVs did drag on until 1940, but they were effectively dead as a major transportation player by 1918, and those 22 years are attributed to the loyalty of wealthy women.

Both Ford and Edison gave up on EVs, after spending large sums of money developing them - in late 1912 Henry Ford told Kettering he would not put self-starters on his cars, but in the end the Kettering ignition system and the self starter permitted the ICV to completely eliminate the female customer niche of EVs, and even Ford had to eventually add them to his cars as his Model T began losing market share to the more sophisticated vehicles.

Part of the reason that Henry Ford was keen to further explore EVs, rather than refine the ICV by adding devices, was the huge continuing success of the Model T and Henry Ford's victory in the Selden Patent case in 1911. For those that don't remember those years :-),the patent attorney George Selden had filed a patent in 1879 for an automobile powered by an internal combustion engine, after seeing a 2-stroke engine demonstrated by Joseph Brayton.

Being a patent attorney, he continually revised his application, and the final patent (#549,160) was not issued until 1895, when he could see that the next 17 years would produce many cars. Seldon then sold the patent to Albert Pope in 1899, who vigorously pursued all ICE automobile makers (after demonstrating that he could win in the courts by successfully sueing Winton Motor Carriage for back royalties ). Pope sold licences to a group of car builders who formed the Association of Licenced Automobile Manufacturers and bought the patent. That group, in turn sold licences, and limited the number of companies in the business by blackballing potential new members. Herny Ford asked to join, and was refused - a very big mistake.

In 1909 William Durrant (of General Motors fame) motors paid $1 million in royalties. Ford called the patent preposterous, and refused to pay any money, and was taken to court in 1909 and lost. He appealed, and in 1911, with the support of many of the automobile pioneers, (including Charles Duryea - the father of the US automobile industry when he built 13 vehicles from one set of plans), Ford carefully demonstrated that the patent was clearly invalid for 4-stroke engines, as most ICE were by then. He even went to the stage of making an ICV using technology readily available before the patent application was lodged.

The destruction of the Selden patent and the success of the Model T had opened up many new avenues that Henry Ford was keen to explore, including the EV niche. Then, in January 1914, Ford announced he and Thomas Edison would build an EV for the mass market, it would have a range of 100 miles, use an Edison battery, and sell for $600-$1,000. The ICV industry was performing well, but he could still see a market for EVs as the "horsey" set still were buying EVs, because they were easy to start and drive. He was trying to cover markets where the EV was established, but the improved ignition system and self-starter (that others were changing rapidly to), would make ICVs good alternatives for EVs in all niches.

As Ford's experiments developed and expanded to a fleet of 20 test Model Ts, Ford slowly realised the Edison battery was not suitable for EVs (low voltage in cold weather would prevent starting), and he gradually dropped the idea of an EV, as the lead-acid option wasn't suitable for his EV for the masses. In 1919, when the electric starter was offered as a stock item on the new enclosed Model T, a lead-acid battery was used.

So, during the years 1910-13, the EV manufacturers were predicting huge market growth (1913 estimate was 30,000 EVs, the reality was 6,000). Some brilliant EV innovations didn't help - the $2,700 Woods gasoline-electric Coupe of 1916 had a 4-cylinder gasoline engine, an electric motor, and a battery half the normal size for EVs. At low speeds in the city, the electric drive was used, and at higher speeds, the gasoline engine took over and also charged the battery). Who thought Hybrids were a novel solution of the 1990s?.

The EV manufacturers mounted a major advertising campaign, but the final blow was the demise of the horse traffic in cities, beginning in the mid teens, as horses were removed from the roads, traffic speeds coul increase, and EVs (as now) had to substitute speed for range.

And so the EV lost its few remaining markets, as no battery had been developed to match the range of ICVs, and the ICV had overcome the faults that EV owners disliked. The transition was the 1910 to 1920 decade, and much of the electrical industry that had supported EVs, switched to research for the whole new electrical system accessories market of ICVs. The promises of the EV producers founded on their failure to produce a suitable battery, and much of the battery research would then turn to improving the lead-acid battery for ICV use.

Most, sci.environment readers will know that I doubt that EVs will be a significant transportation option for the next couple of decades, and so I'm going to leave you with a quote from chapter 12 of Taking Charge, entitled Prognosis for the Electric Car. I've enjoyed reading the above books, but more than anything they've reinforced my opinion that until there is a battery that can provide cost-effective storage of energy (when compared to gasoline), and vehicles that can provide performance, range, purchase and operating costs that match or exceed ICV in existing transportation roles, then EVs will remain a niche player, whether regulated into existance or not.

Electric car proponents never tire of pointing out that an electric with a range of 25 to 60 miles is an adequate city car for most people. What they ignore is the single most important lesson that the history of the early electric vehicle teaches us; the choice of a car technology is influenced by the extreme, not the average, anticipated use. Middle-class Americans in the teens flocked to the gasoline car, even though electrics could meet all of their urban transportation needs, because they anticipated touring every once in a while ..."

Bruce Hamilton