Since its development in the 1890s, the electric automobile has always been the car of tomorrow. Many of the earliest motor vehicles employed electric technology, and thousands of electric vehicles provided satisfactory transport service in the U.S. and Europe over the course of the twentieth century. Never as incapable as its critics claimed, neither was the electric automobile ever destined to become the ‘‘universal’’ vehicle of choice for the typical driver. In specific places and times and for select applications, the electric vehicle excelled, but it has never managed to live up to its lofty expectations.
Prior to 1903, the very soul of the automobile was at stake. Three factors led to the initial failure of the electric vehicle. First, early consumers played an outsized role in defining the overall shape of the technology. Wealthy elite males in search of the ‘‘sporting life’’ sought a technology that offered excitement and enabled exurban touring. Although many wealthy families also ‘‘stabled’’ an electric automobile along with their other cars and horses and used it for local transport, the electric vehicle was too practical and domesticated to satisfy these deeper symbolic needs. Successful applications of electric vehicles focused on commercial needs. Electric taxicabs operated continuously in New York City from 1897 to 1912, but these operated on a traditional, horse-based livery model of transport service. The vehicles were leased and not owner operated. Second, exurban touring required infrastructure that favored internal combustion automobiles. In addition to roads and service facilities, which were decidedly less conducive to electric touring, access to electricity was inherently problematic. Regardless of the absolute range and the technical challenge of charging batteries in remote locations, symbolically the electric car was always ‘‘tethered to a wire.’’ The presence of electric service was evidence of civilization and therefore the very thing that early automobilists sought to escape. Finally, electric technology suffered from unmet expectations, while internal combustion managed to greatly exceed its initial promise. Following the electrification of lighting and street railways, many observers expected electricity to soon make it ‘‘off the rails,’’ whereas few saw the internal combustion engine as capable of powering a transportation revolution. By 1906, the tables had turned. Rapid advances in materials and machining of gasoline engines enabled higher compression and resulted in dramatic increases in both power-to-weight ratio and reliability. The universal electric automobile had failed, and mass motorization via internal combustion had begun.
Until the end of World War I, electric vehicles continued to prosper, but always in niche markets or as parts of larger vehicle fleets. Where fire danger limited the operation of combustion engines, electric stevedores replaced horses on docks and train platforms. Electric materials handling vehicles were used inside factories and storehouses where delicate merchandise could not be exposed to dirty exhaust fumes. Local delivery service was the most durable and persistent niche market. Through the 1920s in the U.S. and well into the post-World War II era in Britain, fleets of electric vehicles delivered everything from mail to milk. The unique attributes of the electric car—quiet, reliable, economical, and capable of frequent starts and stops—could not be matched. During the middle decades of the century, electric vehicles were limited to materials handling and other niche applications and all but disappeared from public view. In the mid-1960s, the electric automobile again emerged as the car of the future. Growing public awareness of the increasing costs of unbridled expansion of the gasoline automobile system and industry inertia prompted policy makers to look anew at the general purpose electric car. In the United States, after 1973, energy independence provided an additional argument in support of the electric vehicle, ultimately leading to the passage of the Electric and Hybrid Vehicle Research Development and Demonstration Act (1976). However, internal combustion had a 75- year head start, and expectations of range and performance had coevolved with suburbanization.
Despite an infusion of government research funds, the electric vehicle proved incapable of displacing the established internal combustion standard. This cycle repeated itself again in the 1990s. In January 1990, General Motors unveiled the Impact, a prototype electric automobile that offered greatly increased performance and range through the use of advanced materials and design. Later that year, the California Air Resources Board passed regulations requiring that a fraction of all vehicles sold in the state must be Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEVs). Only electric vehicles met the initial criteria for ZEVs, and a decade-long battle ensued between the industry and state and federal regulators. As a byproduct, small numbers of electric cars and trucks were sold or leased by mainstream manufacturers like Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota. Enthusiasts adored the vehicles, but overall sales were disappointing, and industry support for the vehicles was tepid at best. Similar stories unfolded in various Western European settings. Tiny minorities were well served by the electric option, but not surprisingly the technology was still incapable of competing head-to-head with internal combustion. Gradually, researchers and policy makers again abandoned the electric vehicle, instead pinning hopes on other technological options, including hybrid electric vehicles (reintroduced by Toyota in Japan in late 1996 and in the U.S. in 2000) and the oft-promised hydrogen fuel cell. Throughout the history of the electric automobile, one popular misconception stands out: Michael Schiffer has called it the ‘‘better battery bugaboo,’’ the idea that the electric vehicle failed entirely on account of the limited range of its batteries. While storage batteries have their limitations, range only became a binding constraint after internal combustion emerged as the leading propulsion technology. Before 1903, electric vehicle taxicab operators like the Electric Vehicle Company in New York City struggled with the cost of operation rather than range per se. Batteries were short-lived and therefore expensive, as were tires, but exchangeable batteries enabled vehicles to be refueled quickly, often while patrons waited in a lounge at the cab station. As noted herein, factors beyond the battery were at least as important, if not more so, in determining the ultimate fate of the electric car in the twentieth century.