ã 2002 Darryl McMahon (all rights reserved)

The Inevitable Electric Car

The ICE Age is coming to an end. The reign of the Internal Combustion Engine will have lasted just about a century, from 1908 to about 2010.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the electric car, a nascent technology measured in the hundreds of units worldwide, was slowly making inroads into the transportation sector, displacing tiny numbers of the dominant transportation powerplant, and ecological disaster in its own right, the horse. Horses' exhaust was smelly and bred disease. When dry, it turned to dust that covered everything. When wet, it created a vile, slippery slop that covered roads and boardwalks. Livery operations took up a lot of space.

The electric had advantages and disadvantages. It was quiet, it did not pollute, and it went farther and faster than anything else on the road. Horses had an effective range of about 10 miles between refueling stops, and a regular operating speed of about 6 mph. Battery-electrics could travel 40 miles or more on a charge, and at speeds double that of horses. Electrics were more reliable than horses, and required less routine maintenance, and were easier to fix. However, fuel was expensive and had to be produced by the owner, and voltages varied from car to car and generator to generator. 40-48 volt systems were reasonably common for battery-electrics, but there was no real standard. Hard surface roads were rare, and the battery-electrics, heavy from battery weight and fitted with narrow wheels, would get mired in the mud. The other electric car, the trolley, was also thriving in urban areas and their outskirts, sometimes known as radial railways. But other factors conspired to do in the early electrics.

The internal combustion engine underwent some major improvements, notably the pressurized radiator and cooling system. This permitted it to travel more than 10 miles at a time before it would overheat, and allowed it to grow to useful sizes. This freed the internal combustion engine from horse-watering troughs. And a convenient fuel was found - petrol. Previously a waste product from the kerosene industry, its producers were happy to sell it at a price that gave them a healthy profit. With the production and transport infrastructure already in place to take kerosene to market, moving drums of petrol, or gasoline, was a simple addition to the product line. Gasoline sold for years at 5 cents a gallon. Electricity, where it was available, sold for up to 40 cents a kilowatt-hour. The final blow was struck by Henry Ford in 1908, when the low-priced, mass-produced, no-amenities Model T swept through the automotive market, flaunting the Seldon patent. This was a vehicle so basic that from April 1909 on, it did not even have a water pump. Sales of the battery-electrics for the mainstream automotive market started to sink almost immediately in 1908. Sales of industrial and delivery vehicles, and high-end automotive market sales lasted somewhat longer.

The gasoline-powered internal combustion engine soared to supremacy. Arriving initially in small quantities, the aggregate affects of the noise, thermal, air and water pollution that would be caused by the ICE were not immediately apparent. Spurred on by demand for faster transport by the armies of World War I, gasoline trucks became a huge market. Once the war was over, the surplus supply of these vehicles were now sold to the domestic transport industry at fire-sale prices, and the era of the draught horse was over. The writing was on the wall even for electric trucks, even General Motors got out of the electric truck business.

1911 marks the zenith for the gasoline car. Acetylene lamps, gravity-feed fuel systems, band brakes, and speeds up to 20 mph. The only contribution electricity makes to its operation is the spark magneto that fires the plugs to ignite the fuel. Only the Diesel engine manages to dispense with that, and even it typically needs a glow-plug to get things going. After that, the transformation into the electric car began. The first step was a small thing to be sure - the starter motor appeared in 1912. It was seen by many as a great start forward for the gasoline engine. Doing away with hand-cranking permitted bigger engines and higher compression which provided for more power in the same displacement. But far from being the death-blow for battery-electrics, as some ICE-friendly revisionists would have us believe, it was the first step in the revival of the electric car after it had been knocked out by the Model T 4 years earlier. Note that the Model T did not have a starter motor, even as an option, until the 1919 model year, and on many Model T's, the handcrank remained standard equipment until 1926. Production of Model T cars ended the following year, in 1927. Clearly, the electric starter was not a key factor in the demise of the early electric car. In retrospect, it was more important than that.

Largely ignored by present-day, ICE-centric automotive writers, the electric starter motor represented the first grafting of key components from the rival electric car technology into gasoline cars: an electric motor, a control switch, electrical wiring and a storage battery. The battery had to be recharged, so a generator became part of the package, sometimes part of the starter, but more often a separate component. The first hybrids had arrived. Gasoline engines could not be started without, or continue to operate, without their electrical components. With time, the electrification of the internal combustion engine, and the vehicles that carry it, would expand.

The apparent ascendancy of the gasoline car remained unchallenged through the 1920's. Works of art housing dirty, noisy gasoline engines emerged from marques like Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Rolls-Royce, Daimler-Benz, Duesenberg, Bugatti, and other carmakers, which made the internal combustion engine acceptable in polite company. But the metamorphosis to electricity continued. Gas headlamps and opera lights gave way to electric headlamps, courtesy lamps and dome lights, and the storage battery got bigger. Taillights appeared, then brake lights. Signal lights and electric horns became common. As surely as the Model T killed the electric car, the electricized car killed the Model T. Electrical accessories and the starter motor rendered the Tin Lizzie passé. Even the Model T's immediate successor, the Model A, had an electric starter, battery, and electric lighting, as standard equipment. In another transport sector, the railways were moving away from steam to electric and diesel-electric.

Even the 1930's did not provide a serious challenge to the internal combustion engine. When gasoline was unavailable or unaffordable in the "Dirty Thirties", the occasional enterprising farmer would hitch up one of his few remaining horses and pull it around like a carriage, the "Bennett buggy". Rural electrification came too late to provide the standardization, infrastructure and affordable pricing the early electric car needed to be a real success. Car radios added to the attractiveness of being in a car. Electric fans and blowers moved waste heat from the engine into the cabin and onto the windshield. Electric motors powered windshield wipers. Wiring proliferated throughout the vehicle to power more and more accessories. Cold cranking amps and reserve capacity of automotive Starting, Lighting & Ignition (SLI) batteries continued to rise.

The 1940's brought rationing of gasoline, and demand for more powerful engines for war machines like aircraft, patrol boats, self-propelled artillery, tanks, GP's (later Jeeps), and transport trucks. On the civilian side, small numbers of electric vehicles surfaced in response to gasoline rationing. The basic electric drive technology had survived in industrial applications, and was available to fill some of the void caused by gasoline shortages. Post-war, the larger engines found their way into the new models of passenger cars, and the demand for these vehicles proved to be almost insatiable. There were now engines with enough power to move trolley-cars, and the ICE manufacturers created a new product - the motor coach or bus.

In the 1950's cars grew fins, and in size. Power windows became an option. More electric motors, more battery capacity required. Most auto manufacturers shifted from six-volt to twelve-volt systems to carry more power on less wire. Urban transit operators were not buying buses; trolley systems just kept on working. So, a consortium of interested parties started buying up trolley-car operations, only to shut them down and replace them with ICE-powered buses. Battery-electrics surfaced in California and begat the electric golf-cart. In a later time, we would have called the Autoette, the Electra-King, the Electric Shopper and their cousins NEVs (Neighbourhood Electric Vehicles).

In the 1960's the love affair with the automobile began to sour as a new word entered the vocabulary of the civilized world - smog. The new scourge was met head-on by the automotive industry, with a PR campaign of denial and confusion. This strategy was so successful, it would be used several times in decades to come. Car radios grew to make space for 8-track tapes, so we could choose our own tunes if we didn't like what was playing on any of the radio stations. Trolley-cars continued to disappear only to be replaced by motor-coaches. Like Lazarus, battery-electrics made another appearance as a potential pollution-solution, highlighted by the MIT-Caltech cross-country race. GM showed off its ElectroVair; Ford its Comuta City.

The 1970's brought the OPEC petro-pinches. Fuel economy became an issue in the face of gasoline rationing not seen before in peacetime, and lines at the gas pumps. Fuel efficient cars were in demand, and when North American car makers would not deliver them to consumers, Japanese and European manufacturers were happy to fill the demand. Smog became so bad that even the American federal government was moved to start measuring fuel economy and automotive emissions. Battery-electrics just wouldn't go away - more than 2,200 Sebring-Vanguard CitiCar were produced and sold. Some minor attempts at fuel economy for ICEs appeared. 8-track tapes gave way to cassette tapes, as radiator fan belts gave way to thermostatically-controlled, electric radiator fans. Electric fuel pumps appeared. Wire-grid rear-window defrosters replaced inconvenient scraping. Pintos reminded us of the implications of carrying large quantities of highly flammable liquids around with us. EGR valves and catalytic converters appeared as band-aids for emissions controls.

But it wasn't enough, so the 1980's brought micro-processors to the engine compartment as a response to Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) ratings. These computers measured engine temperature, fuel-air mixture ratios, and exhaust gases, and attempted to alter the operation of the engine to reduce emissions. The level of complexity of operation rose geometrically. Electronic equipment was more sensitive to voltage dips and spikes, so voltage regulation became more critical. Better batteries were deployed, and better meant bigger. More wire nestled into wiring harnesses to feed the computers with power, input and things to control. On-board computers now knew how much fuel was on board, how much was being consumed, temperatures outside the vehicle and in the engine compartment, and could report the current rate of fuel consumption and expected range remaining based on fuel remaining, driver behaviour and current rate of consumption. More importantly, early in the decade, fuel shortages and higher gasoline prices were encouraging us to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles. But increasing numbers of vehicles, and miles driven per vehicle were outweighing the minor gains in fuel economy and emissions reductions. Environmentally, we were still losing ground. And the late 1980's brought another key player - the minivan. Suburban North America was soon over-run by the new blight. Fuel consumption rose accordingly. Competition-class sound systems required more electrical power, and heavy-duty alternators appeared in smaller vehicles, and more battery came on-board. We learned about acid rain and CFC's. Desert Storm no longer meant sand blowing in the wind, but rather oil paid for with the blood of our sons and daughters spilled on foreign soil.

The 1990's brought another environmental scourge, the SUV, a station-wagon body on a pickup truck frame, it was an unbridled source of profits for North American automakers and oil companies. Sporting custom paint jobs and luxury interiors, the average SUV went off-road only to enter parking lots and driveways, or when it rolled over due to its ungainly stance and high center of gravity. Other key additions to the North American automobile included multiple cup holders per occupant, security systems, car-phones, CD players, electric coffee makers, cup warmers, hair-dryers, power-adjustable seats, power-adjustable pedals... Even televisions and VCRs were available as factory-equipment in some vehicles. The appliance count in a fully-equipped minivan or SUV rivaled that of the average household. Actually, most houses didn't have power windows or door locks or remote starters or GPS systems. The inevitable consequence of this ever-increasing demand for electrical power inside these living rooms on wheels? Bigger alternators and bigger batteries, and more wiring and electronics on-board. Battery-electrics remained visible in the rearview mirror, and appeared to be gaining ground. The EV-1 escaped from General Motors to a very limited market, but even GM could not hide the success of this vehicle. Waiting lists appeared for the car GM would not market. Ford had a similar problem with their Ranger EV, and were outmaneuvered by a European government, and ended up owning a small, but viable, electric car company (PIVCO) and their key product, the Th!nk City. The 1990's also brought recognition that greenhouse gases and global climate change were a reality, at least to the insurance industry. And Kyoto came to mean more than the name of a city in Japan.

In response, the first decade of the 21st century brought us the 42-volt electrical system, yet another attempt to satiate the power requirements of these mobile appliance palaces. With the expectation that our cars will soon include Web and e-mail access on the dash, the demand for more on-board electricity is expected to continue. The major application for this computing power will undoubtedly be to allow the driver to play video games as they spend more and more of their lives alone in their motionless 6,000-plus pound wheeled cocoons waiting for the sea of vehicles surrounding them to magically part and let them pass. While the ICE automotive industry moves to voltages reminiscent of electrics a century earlier, the golf-cart industry is abandoning the 36-volt nominal standard (which the automotive industry is calling the 42-volt standard) and moving to 48.

The decade without a name also brought us the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, the first mass-produced ICE vehicles with significant electric drive-train components. While still only electric-assist gasoline cars with no plug-in recharge capability, they represent another step in the inexorable journey of the ugly ICE's surrender to the elegant simplicity of the electric drive solution. So far, this decade has also brought us September 11, 2001 and the loss of many lives in the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. The oil wars have reached onto the home front. Weather systems continue to become more severe, hurricane season has extended to May, and El Niño has become part of our new lexicon. Ford continues to try to deny the inevitable, and has announced it will stop production of the Th!nk Neighbor battery-electric and not produce the North American version of the Th!nk City at all (August 2002).

The end of this decade will bring us to the precipice of Hubbert's Peak. It is a mountain the ICE will not climb successfully. Whether it is the fuel cell, or a better battery, or simple economics and acceptance of the reality that current electric drive technology is sufficient for most driving requirements that drives the change, the vehicle we drive down the other side of Hubbert's Peak is destined to have an electric drive-train. Ironically, global climate change, one of the very problems that will encourage the adoption of electric cars, may also provide some of the energy to charge them. Increased energy in the atmosphere resulting from greenhouse gas induced warming will be expressed in part in higher wind speeds, making wind turbines effective in even more areas than they are now.

(This article is dedicated to the memory of Bob Wing, an EV pioneer, who passed away March 17, 2002 in Inverness, California.)

The author is the President of Econogics (www.econogics.com), and has been driving zero emissions vehicles since 1978.