In its pursuit of electrified vehicles, the global automotive industry may be on the verge of validating American philosopher George Santayana’s famous phrase: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Bob Casey, automobile historian and curator of transportation at The Henry, a museum in Dearborn, MI, says many of the same issues that plagued early electric vehicles still exist, even as the industry, along with some politicians, continue to hype the technology as the next transportation revolution.
In the early 1900s, gasoline- and electric-powered cars coexisted as they do today. Steam-powered cars also were in the mix. Back then, no one could predict which technology would emerge as the winner.
Early EV auto makers included Detroit Electric Car, General Electric Automobile and Ward Motor Vehicle, which produced a car with a 100-mile (161-km) range, more than most modern EVs can achieve.
At one point, the U.S. boasted nearly 100 electric-vehicle makers, with dozens of others scattered throughout the world. Many of the smaller firms eventually were driven out of business by the larger, better-funded companies.
Casey says cars were not a necessity at that time, because of ample public transportation, including street cars. Electric cars mostly were used for recreation, he says. Until the early 1920s, there were two kinds of vehicles: those used for business and commercial purposes and those driven for pleasure.
With the dawn of the mass-produced passenger car, the pleasure vehicle died out, Casey says. EVs began to fade from the scene as well, due to their limited range and the lack of recharging infrastructure.
While gasoline service stations were not widespread, fuel usually could be found, even in remote locations. And some drivers carried extra cans of fuel on long drives.
Despite their limitations, EVs, powered by primitive lead-acid batteries, were on life support but still kicking. Most had a range of between 30-60 miles (48-97 km), compared with theLeaf and upcoming Focus EV, both of which under optimal conditions can achieve 100 miles on a single charge, the auto makers say.
However, Casey points out today’s EVs have a host of power-draining accessories that early versions did not, such as climate-control and audio systems. And the early models produced much lower speeds, with most topping out at about 30 mph (48 km/h).
The early electrified cars appealed to women, most wealthy city dwellers, in part because they could be started with a flip of the switch. Gasoline cars had to be crank-started, a difficult and potentially dangerous procedure.
The early EVs reached the end of the road with the advent of the electric starter for gas-powered cars; the development of better roads that prompted motorists to drive farther; and the more-affordable price of gas-powered cars, such as the Ford Model T that retailed for as little as $290.
“By 1915, EVs were really squeezed in the market,” Casey says.
But that didn’t stop Woods Motor from taking one last stab with the development of the world’s first gasoline-electric hybrid, the ’16 Woods Dual Power Phantom.
“There was no magic software; the driver was the software,” Casey says. “(The car) lasted one year. Nobody was really interested.”
While modern EVs are powered by advanced lithium-ion batteries and boast greater speeds than their early counterparts, the knock against them remains their limited range, which Casey says likely will relegate them to a niche status.
“I’m skeptical electric cars will ever become mainstream,” he says. “I read a (review) of the () Leaf, and it was praised as fun to drive with plenty of acceleration. But what if you wanted to drive to Chicago?
“For people who can afford to have two cars, one for short range and one for long, maybe the EV is a viable option. But not everyone can or wants to own two cars. I think history is repeating itself. EVs are going to be niche cars, but it may be a different niche because there are different forces at work.”
Casey also doubts battery technology will ever be able to match the energy provided by gasoline.
Ford, which will roll out its Focus EV later this year, argues times have changed and EVs successfully will overcome the obstacles that doomed them in the past.
Nancy Lee Gioia, Ford's director-global electrification, acknowledges some of the same EV challenges of the past still exist, but she also argues there are several reasons why the technology will succeed in today’s marketplace.
These include the wide range of electrified vehicles, including pure EVs, plug-ins and hybrids that offer consumers a choice. Additionally, battery technology has matured dramatically, helping improve affordability, durability and reliability.
Lastly, she says, there is a greater need for “fuel diversification,” because of a strong push to wean the U.S. off its dependence on foreign oil. “We see unprecedented investment, innovation and alignment on installing infrastructure, all around the globe, to add electricity as transportation fuel.”
And technology is pushing the segment to new capability. The Chevrolet Volt extended-range sedan, for example, uses an onboard internal-combustion engine to power the car’s generator after the first 35 miles (56 km) of electric driving, thus eliminating concerns about limited range.
But even modern EVs packed with the latest technology face an uphill battle.
A recent study by Indiana University says achieving President Obama’s objective of putting 1 million EVs on U.S. roads by 2015 will require “bold action” from the auto industry, federal government and scientific community.
“President Obama’s dream is appealing, and it may be achievable, but there are big barriers to overcome before the mass commercialization of electric vehicles will occur,” John D. Graham, dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU, says in a release. Among the obstacles he cites are the high cost of the technology, limited recharging infrastructure and uncertainty among consumers regarding EV reliability.
However, growing government support for the development and sale of EVs, particularly in the U.S. and China, is an advantage modern EVs have over their predecessors.
The U.S. government offers a $7,500 tax break to EV purchasers, while China is providing significant financial assistance to its domestic auto makers to develop EV technology.
Because EVs such as the Leaf and Volt just now are beginning to hit dealerships, it is unclear how successful they will be.
However, hybrid-electric vehicles, which have been on the market for more than a decade, have yet to catch on with a large number of consumers.
U.S. HEV sales in 2000 were a mere 9,350 units, but quickly shot up to 47,566 in 2003, according to Ward’s data. Deliveries peaked in 2007 at 352,862, but tumbled to 274,740 by 2010, accounting for just 2% of the market.