“Let’s be fair, the combustion engine has got a 100-year head start,” remarked Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA). “We started this a little while ago…. [We have] essentially … two years’ worth of run here.”

This statement, reported this week in Energy & Environmental News (sub. req.), is a surprise. For either Mr. Wynne does not know the history of his industry, or the energy bookshelf has many lying books. The Internet would have it all wrong too.

A Little History

The rise and fall of electric vehicles (EVs) in the United States is well documented. A good place to start is David Kirsch’s The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History (Rutgers University Press, 2000).

“In the late 1890s, at the dawn of the automobile era, steam, gasoline, and electric cars all competed to become the dominant automotive technology,” Kirsch explains in the introduction. “By the early 1900s, the battle was over, and internal combustion was poised to become the prime mover of the twentieth century.”

Kirsch dates the defeat for EVs (p. 204): “No electric car since 1902, regardless of battery or drive train, had been able to compete effectively against its contemporary internal combustion counterpart.” That makes the electrics burden of history 110 years old, despite a lot of private and public effort to make it otherwise in the competitive marketplace.

Wikipedia’s entry for electric vehicles provides a 175-year chronology of EVs. The first EVs were built in the 1830s, and the heyday began several decades later. According to Wiki:

Electric vehicles were among the earliest automobiles, and before the preeminence of light, powerful internal combustion engines, electric automobiles held many vehicle land speed and distance records in the early 1900s. They were produced by Baker Electric,Columbia Electric, Detroit Electric, and others, and at one point in history out-sold gasoline-powered vehicles. In fact, in 1900, 28 percent of the cars on the road in the USA were electric. EVs were so popular that even President Woodrow Wilson and his secret service agents toured Washington DC in their Milburn Electrics, which covered 60–70 miles per charge.

Some More History

Some very smart people understood the economics/physics involved in electrics versus oil-powered internal combustion engines. None other than Thomas Edison advised a 33-year-old Henry Ford (in 1896) to forego batteries for a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine with the memorable words:

Young man, that’s the thing; you have it. Keep at it. Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do, either, for they require a boiler and fire. Your car is self-contained—carries its own power plant—no fire, no boiler, no smoke and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it.

Eighteen years later, in what was described as “Mr. Ford’s personal project,” the industrialist gave Edison the opportunity to get back atop the electrical world by inventing an economical car battery for a new “Ford Electric.”  The experiment failed. The cost and weight of the alkaline battery could not meet the price and range requirements of a competitive (gasoline) vehicle.

The burden of history continued in the 1990s when General Motors unveiled the two-seater “Impact” (EV1). Despite a mandate by the California Air Resources Board to jumpstart a market, GM ended up crushing its vehicles for scrap. Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Nissan and Toyota also ended their smaller EV experiments.


History matters. Marketplace verdicts of past years, decades, and centuries provide lessons and insight for today. Just as proponents of wind and solar for electricity want to believe that the world began in the 1970s or 1980s, electric-vehicle interests want to pretend that history is not prologue. It is, suggesting that government should stay neutral towards energy technology and let the marketplace decide.

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