The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age

By Foreman-Peck, James | The Journal of Transport History, March 2005 | Go to article overview

The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age


Foreman-Peck, James, The Journal of Transport History


Gijs Mom, The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore MD and London (2004), 464 pp., US$54.95

Erratic oil prices and environmental concerns combine to ensure continuing interest in electric cars and hybrid internal combustion-electric vehicles. What then can we learn from history about why the battery electric vehicle continues to be an underdog in competition with the internal combustion-powered car? Gijs Mom is well placed to tell us. A former student of Dutch literature, he went on to train in automotive technology at Renault in Paris and Rover in Solihull. His finely illustrated electric vehicle study therefore bridges the 'two cultures' and the more numerous national linguistic divides, combining a thorough grasp of technical facts and problems with an elegant exposition.

The antecedents of the electric road vehicle, and its inspiration, were the horse-drawn taxi cab, the electric tram, the horse bus and the bicycle, not the steam train and the steam road vehicle, Mom maintains. Excluding current phases of development, his study distinguishes three generations of electric cars, beginning with electrified horse-drawn vehicles in the period 1881-1902. The more reliable second-generation product with improved batteries and pneumatic tyres covered the years 1902-25, and the third generation consisted of electric versions of the internal combustion engine car. For each generation there are separate chapters on the private car, the taxi cab and heavy-duty specialised vehicles. The different uses to which these vehicles were put, and the relative successes of electric vehicles in each of them, are central to Mom's contention that the electric vehicle was ideally adapted to centrally operated and maintained fleets - far more so than the internal combustion car.

When total car use was very small, the US Electric Vehicle Company ordered an enormous (and optimistic) 2,000 taxis in 1899. At the beginning of 1901 the company employed perhaps 850 electric vehicles. We are told that the failures of the first electric taxi experiments in New York, London and Paris did not imply that other power sources would have proved more effective. Indeed, in the second generation the City and Suburban Electric Carriage Company of London by 1903 operated 230 carriages, whose reliability was ensured by maintenance specialists, and the operation would have been even more profitable had not battery failures or depreciation been so great. Mom's investigation of the records of Atax of Amsterdam is decisive for his thesis. Atax were profitable into the 1920s; operating a large, intensively used, taxi fleet with central maintenance, they were 'virtually unbeatable'. Internal accounting data show that from 1909 average daily vehicle use rose from 90 km a day to 120 km in 1917. Nonetheless the company terminated in 1926, unable to replace its taxis because the producers had gone out of business.

Electric road vehicle use increased until 1914 in the United States. Only in comparison with internal combustion engined cars does electricity seem to have 'failed' before then. In 1914 electrics accounted for a mere 3 per cent of passenger cars and 22 per cent of commercial vehicles - large fleets operated by a small number of companies in big cities. Even the millennial efforts of the Electric Vehicle Association of America with its official creed ('We believe, in the electric vehicle, that the electric vehicle is destined to supersede other forms of transportation', p. 234) could not alter the decline in market share.

The positive story Mom offers is about how technical change takes place when artefacts (types of road vehicle) compete. Competing technologies stimulate each other by 'stealing', mimicry and exchange of technical properties and user functions. The proportion of electricity in the internal combustion car increased, culminating with the starter motor, helped by the improvement of the electric battery, itself encouraged by the development of the electric vehicle. …

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