Oct 14 2021

Lack of Infrastructure Killed Early Electric Car

At the turn of the 19th century there were three relatively equal contenders for automobile technology, electric cars, steam powered, and the internal combustion engine (ICE). It was not obvious at the time which technology would emerge dominant, or even if they would all continue to have market share. By 1905, however, the ICE began to dominate, and by 1920 electric cars fell out of production. The last steam car company ended production in 1930, perhaps later than you might have guessed.

This provides an excellent historical case for debate over which factors ultimately determined the winner of this marketplace competition (right up there with VHS vs Betamax). We will never definitively know the answer – we can’t rerun history with different variables to see what happens. Also, the ICE won out the world over because the international industry consolidated around that choice, meaning that other countries were not truly independent experiments.

The debate comes down to internal vs external factors – the inherent attributes of each technology vs infrastructure. Each technology had its advantages and disadvantages. Steam engines worked just fine, and had the advantage of being flexible in terms of fuel. These were external combustion engines, as the combustion took place separately, outside the engine itself. But they also needed a boiler, which produced the steam to power the engine. Steam cars were more powerful than ICE cars, and also quieter and (depending on their configuration) produced less pollution. They had better torque characteristics, obviating the need for a transmission. The big disadvantage was that they needed water for the boiler, which required either a condenser or frequent topping off. They could also take a few minutes to get up to operating temperature, but this problem was solved in later models with a flash boiler.

ICE vehicles were the most efficient in terms of weight, and were the most convenient in terms of fuel. However, they had a couple big disadvantages. They were the noisiest and dirtiest of the three options. In cities this was a big deal, and as adoption of ICE vehicles increased it made cities into noisy polluted places. Early models also had a big disadvantage in terms of the crank starter, which was inconvenient and even potentially dangerous. The electric starter was probably critical to the ICE vehicles eventually dominance.

Electric vehicles were quiet and produced no pollution. They were perfect for city driving, which is where they were most popular. The big limitation was the batteries of the time, which were low powered. So electric cars were relatively slow, and might have difficulty going up a hill on a dirt road. They also took longer to recharge, hours instead of minutes (no fast charging).

Given all these inherent features of the various technologies, it certainly is possible to imagine a world in which steam powered and ICE vehicles continued to compete with each other for a much longer time, or even one in which steam powered cars win out. The limitations of each technology were incrementally being solved, and so we cannot compare a modern car with a primitive steam powered car. We have to imagine how the technology would have continued to advance, and it’s interesting to think about what a 21st century steam powered car would be like if the technology continued. The advantages of being quieter with less pollution and greater power may have been enough to win out.

It’s also possible to imagine a world in which electric cars remained popular for city dwellers, and even one in which cities banned ICE cars from their streets to limit noise and pollution. Battery technology did continually improve, and this technology would likely have improved more quickly with an auto industry behind it. Popular city use could have maintained the technology until it became suitable for intercity travel.

The fact that each technology was ultimately tenable and had its own advantages is why some historians turn to external infrastructure factors as ultimately the reason ICE cars won out. Steam powered cars needed access to water to keep their boilers full. You can only carry so much with you. This would have been an easy problem to solve with filling stations, but the infrastructure just did not emerge in time. Ironically, when cars became popular enough this reduced reliance on horses, which also then meant that drinking troughs along the road for horses disappeared. They were being used for steam engines, so the infrastructure actually went away.

All this background brings us to a current study looking at the role of infrastructure on the fate of the electric car. The authors analyzed 36,000 passenger car models, and used econometric models to estimate the choices of car manufacturers. They conclude that the primary reason electric cars were abandoned was infrastructure. Electricity was simply not well-enough established at the time, and was still relatively expensive. They estimate that if the electric grid in the US were 20 years ahead of where it actually was, the electric vehicle may have ultimately won out.

Gasoline cars ultimately benefitted from a huge infrastructure advantage, and was self-reinforcing. Filling stations could be placed anywhere – they did not have to be along the electric grid. All you need is a tank and a hand pump. There was also a burgeoning gasoline industry eager to sell its product, and happy to service these filling stations.

But history could have gone another way, even with the infrastructure issue. Ford and Edison were working on electric vehicles, with Edison providing the battery technology and Ford the car technology. (The picture above is Ford’s second EV prototype.) In fact, as late as 1914 Ford was creating buzz that he was developing a cheap EV for the masses, with a range of 50-100 miles. Ford invested $1.5 million in the technology. Eventually he abandoned the project over disagreements about which battery technology to use, and Ford turned his attention to other projects. This is the quirky nature of history that’s hard to account for. What if Ford persisted, and mass-produced an affordable EV with a reasonable range sometime in the late teens? That one decision ultimately by one man could have kept the EV industry going, and changed history. Instead, by 1920 the EV was dead.

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