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Thomas Edison is shown in his laboratory in West Orange, N.J. (J. WALTER THOMPSON)
Thomas Edison is shown in his laboratory in West Orange, N.J. (J. WALTER THOMPSON)

Neil Reynolds

Back to the future with electric cars Add to ...

In an essay this month in The American, the journal of the American Enterprise Institute, automotive writer Ralph Kinney Bennett recalls the revolutionary promise of the electric car a century ago - a cautionary tale for our own times.

Mr. Bennett uses century-old newspaper headlines and magazine ads to evoke a sense of you-are-there. In 1914, for example, a Motor World magazine headline enthusiastically reports: "Ford To Build That Long Looked For Electric Car." The sub-head asserted that the car "Will Employ Special 100-mile Edison Battery." The article itself revealed that legendary inventor Thomas A. Edison had developed a breakthrough battery for the Ford all-electric car "and has succeeded so well that a 400-pound battery, capable of operating 100 miles without recharging, is assured."

Notwithstanding this assurance, the all-electric Ford was never built. Edison's batteries worked, more or less, but the all-electric cars of the early 1900s could compete with the internal combustion engine only as niche vehicles for affluent and fashionable urban dwellers. "Ads for the electric car tended toward pictures of light, elegant … carriages pulled up to a city curb with a stylishly clad lady at the tiller," Mr. Bennett notes. "The early EV [electric vehicle]makers quietly offered 'odourless' and 'noiseless' transport to milady's hair dresser …"

Governments around the world are now committed to serving - "at great public expense" - the same niche market that existed briefly in the early 1900s. Mr. Bennett warns that these governments are mostly advancing another expensive urban entitlement - "a second or a third 'short-trip' car." In the U.S., the "great public expense" includes $25-billion (U.S.) in federal loans to auto makers who market electric cars and $7,500 in tax credits for each person who buys one, he notes. In Ontario, the "great public expense" includes $10,000 (Canadian) grants for people who buy certain kinds of electric cars, such as GM's gas-electric Chevrolet Volt.

As it happened, GM took its Volt for a 1,776-mile "freedom drive" earlier this month. The GM caravan departed from Austin, Texas, and arrived three days later (on the Fourth of July) in New York City. The purpose was obvious: GM knows that most people won't buy a car that can't make its way on the open highway. GM explicitly described its hit-the-road test drive as a demonstration of the car's "extended range."

The Volt apparently performed well enough - though it did seem odd that the crew had to run extension cords from motel windows out to parking lots at night. You would have expected the company to bunk at hotels equipped with strategically placed electrical outlets. Still, GM's electric car completed its mission and looked good when photographed alongside the Hudson River with Macy's fireworks illuminating the sky behind it.

Significantly, GM did not reveal the number of times it stopped along the way to fill the Volt's eight-gallon (30-litre) gas tank. Nor did it elaborate on the Volt's battery performance in "extended range" driving.

On one hand, short-hop endurance would appear to meet the needs of the average American family - easily calculated by dividing 11 billion (miles a day) by 300 million (people): The average daily need, by this reckoning, is 36 miles (58 kilometres). But this statistical average obviously understates the average family's perceived needs.

"We buy [cars]… for their potential to carry not just ourselves but our families, friends, poker cronies, softball teammates, dogs and cats, antiques, tools, fishing rods …," Mr. Bennett observes. "And, oh yes, we might be dragging a boat or a couple of dirt bikes or a pony trailer behind us as well."

For a decade or more, electric cars dominated the automobile market in the early 1900s. The Baker Motor Vehicle Co. made more electric cars than any other company has made in history. Jay Leno owns a luxury-model 1909 Baker that still runs on its original Edison battery. ("Stepping into a Baker," by one account, "was a little like stepping into a very small parlor.") The electric cars of the 21st century will hit the road in a serious way next year. GM expects to sell 10,000 Volts in 2011, 30,000 in 2012. But early sales numbers won't mean much. When will these cars stand on their own? Nissan says that it will need subsidies for its all-electric Leaf until it sells 500,000 (or perhaps one million) a year. Nissan's direct subsidy from the U.S. government is $1.6-billion so far.

Mr. Bennett is not the only expert who remains skeptical. In a report published in April, The Washington Post concluded: "The same unreliability of electric car batteries that flummoxed Thomas Edison persists today." And then, more authoritatively, there's, Tomohiko Kawanabe, the Tokyo-based chief of research for Honda Motor Co. (which will introduce its own gas-electric cars this fall).

"I can't say I can wholeheartedly recommend them," Mr. Kawanabe told Bloomberg News in May. "We lack confidence [in the EV business]"

The ICE Age, the era of the internal combustion engine, isn't over yet.

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