Why Didn’t Early Electric Cars Have the Spark?

by | May 24, 2021

Electric and alternative energy cars are all the rage right now. With the ever-fluctuating price of oil and the instability of the regions where it is most plentiful, as well as the umbrella threat of climate change appearing as smog and pollution before our eyes, green tech is on the rise. But it’s not new technology, as advocates of the 1990s GM electric car, the EV1 will tell you, and it dates back much further than that. 

hedag-brougham-electric-77644_1920On paper, the electric car made far more sense than gasoline-powered vehicles. It was quiet, far easier to drive, accessible for women, cleaner and generally a more enjoyable automotive experience for the earliest motorists at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. Electric cars, unlike steam – a wildly dangerous energy source – and petrol, had few drawbacks. But if it was so perfect, why didn’t it survive? Why are we sudden in a new renaissance of electric vehicles, instead of a century into perfecting them? Here a few factors that influenced the rise and fall of the electric car through history.

The Open Roads:

field-1365291_1920When electric cars first warred with their gasoline powered counterparts, the streets in contention were local, urbanized areas, where most folks who could afford a car could afford electricity. It was coming into the mainstream way of life for city-dwellers, and since roads outside of metropolitan areas were difficult to navigate, most trips were confined to the local, short jaunts across town.

However, when demand came for travel between cities, and roads followed quickly, city dwellers suddenly found that access to electricity didn’t extend to the rural and out of the way areas between cities and towns. The infrastructure for electricity was far more complicated and involved than was transporting gasoline. Where the electric car reigned in the city, the gasoline powered vehicle had a far wider range, with less threat of being stranded without power. 

The Discovery of Crude Oil:

If it weren’t for a handful of oil discoveries, you can bet we’d all be driving around in noiseless, pollution-less cars. But oil fields began cropping up right around the time cars starting needing gasoline, and the demand and supply became a huge market. Oil and thus, gasoline, was cheap and easily accessible. It could be transported with little fanfare and was thus soon in control of the rural farming towns that the electric car couldn’t travel through. 

oil-106913_1920Imagine for a moment, if you will, how different the world would be if those few oil fields had never been discovered. Think about the impact on the car industry, the next industrial revolution – coming with Henry Ford – think about the numerous wars and political fubars to follow finding that crude oil. It’s amazing to consider how much impact a single detail in history would have on the future of the world.

Henry History-Maker Ford:

If Ford had made electric cars, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The truth is, Ford’s Model T blew away everyone. Even the quieter, softer, easier-to-drive electric cars paled in comparison on price and production quality, and Model Ts happened to be gas-powered. They sold in mass, and more car companies began to follow suit, the precedent laid down on production and on price. It didn’t matter that electric cars had once reigned, Ford was charging so much less for his Model T that the competition simply disappeared. 

automobiles-502135_1920It would have been ironic, if Ford had produced electric cars. The industrial revolution inspired by his mass-production and streamlining technology created a consumer culture world that led to the complications surrounding global warming and cheaply produced products at a fast rate. But the fact is, he didn’t, and that Model T continues to influence the automotive world.

None of these simple elements apply to the world today, not really. We have open roads stretching all across the United States and the western world and access to electricity is dependable in America. Oil prices, for now, are low and cars are produced with the intention of higher MPG and efficiency. Henry Ford’s legacy has been laid, but it has been recreated and perfected time and again, streamlining the process to be more efficient, if less revolutionary.

There are factors today, too, that would have fundamentally altered the electric car’s success or demise 100 years ago, even twenty years ago, with the EV1. For one, there was no conversation about pollution or the impact on the environment. The early 20th century was a race to the future, and they certainly achieved their goals. There was also no communication, no conversation or interconnectivity that could have meant a rallying cry for electric car supporters or consumers asking for cheaper alternative energy. The separate and distant nature of communication hubs of the early 1900s is a far cry from our complete global interconnectivity today.

Perhaps it is those factors, which contribute to the support for alternative energy in the modern age. Perhaps it is that the details which once so strongly changed the focus of the automotive world are antiquated and stale. Perhaps it is a combination of the times and our knowledge that creates an environment – if you’ll pardon the pun – where electricity and other alternative energy forms are successful in the long term, not just until something better comes along.

The verdict is out. Electric cars were in production until the 1930s, far longer than they have been in their current iteration. But from where we sit right now, with the looming threat of climate change and access to knowledge and technology like we’ve never had before, it looks like these cars might just be around to stay.

One thing is for certain, however, we are never, ever, ever going back to steam.