Electric cars at Snug Rock, Yonkers, New York circa 1900. Photo from the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Automobile Driving Museum.
Electric cars, it seems, are all the rage these days, with an increasing number of automakers offering battery or generator-powered models in their lineups. Given the recent resurgence of interest in electric vehicles, a new exhibit at the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo, California, entitled The Electric Car – Fad or Future? examines if the time has come to take another look at battery-powered transportation.
Like the internal combustion (and external combustion) automobile, the electric car pre-dates the dawn of the 20th century. British engineer Thomas Parker built an electric car in London in 1884, but the initial prototype was developed primarily to serve as a test bed for Parker’s lead-acid battery designs. His electric car would see production, but not until the late 1880s. In 1888, German inventor Andreas Flocken built his Flocken Elektrowagen, a car that is widely regarded as the first mass-produced electric car in the world.
Reconstruction of an 1888 Flocken Elektrowagen.
In the early 1900s, electric cars and gasoline cars existed side by side, each with fans and detractors. Those in favor of electric cars cited their vibration-free running, odorless operation, reduced maintenance and ease of operation as major selling points, overlooking their limited range. Electric cars were often targeted to female buyers, as electrics required no cranking to start and no shifting of gears once underway.
An early limiting factor to electric car adoption was the lack of charging infrastructure. Once electricity became common in American homes (around the mid-1910s), interest in electric cars grew, but in the 1920s the pendulum shifted in the opposite direction. Gasoline was cheap and readily available, giving internal combustion cars a near endless range. With multi-speed transmissions, gasoline cars were faster, too, and as the electric starter became more common, even on affordable models, internal combustion automobiles were nearly as convenient as electrics.
Leo Bakeland and family in their electric car circa 1900, Snug Harbor, Yonkers, New York. Photo from the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Automobile Driving Museum.
The internal combustion engine had decisively won the first battle, but fans of the electric car never gave up on the idea. Over the decades, electric-powered vehicles saw operation in a variety of roles where limited range and a lower top speed was not an issue, and a few intrepid companies relaunched electric cars to a limited audience. Even automakers like AMC (with the 1969 Rambler American electric station wagon) and GM (with the Electrovair, and later, the Electrovette) got in on the action with prototypes, but it would take until the 1990s for consumers and automakers to take a serious second look at electric cars.
Some, like the for-lease-only 1996-’99 GM EV1, were designed from the ground up as electric vehicles, but most were simply production cars fitted with batteries and electric motors, sold to comply with mandates for zero-emission vehicles from the California Air Resources Board. Again, electric cars had a staunch group of supporters, but high prices, limited availability and limited range meant the cars went unnoticed by most shoppers.
Today, the pendulum may be poised to swing in the other direction. Modern electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model X, have ranges that move them into the practical category, at least for daily commutes. Some, like the Chevrolet Volt and the BMW i3 (when equipped with the optional generator) use a gasoline-fueled engine to power a generator as needed, ending the days of range anxiety. As before, however, the biggest single drawback of electric vehicles is their high purchase price when compared to gasoline equivalents, something that supporters insist is offset over time by reduced ownership costs.
Featuring a display of unusual electric vehicles from the 1970s and 1970s, as well as more contemporary designs from Tesla, Honda and Toyota, The Electric Car – Fad or Future? promises to examine why the electric car has yet to gain widespread adoption, while taking a look at how much “greener” modern electric cars are compared to gasoline counterparts. Looking ahead, the exhibit asks the question, “what if;” how would acceptance of the electric car change the automobile industry, the fossil fuel industry, the electric generation and distribution industry, and the current global balance of power associated with an oil-based economy?
The Electric Car – Fad or Future? opened on May 15 and runs through July 31. For more information on the exhibit, hours or admission, visit AutomobileDrivingMuseum.org/Electric-Car.