The first electric vehicle was developed in the late 1890s, and EVs were fairly popular up until the 1920s. So what happened? New research published in Nature by Lund University suggests that early electric infrastructure, or a lack thereof, prevented electric cars from winning over the 20th century.
When people talk about early electric cars, they tend to criticize the vehicles for their low speed, poor performance, and high price tag. But after studying a database of over 36,000 American-made cars, Josef Taalbi and Hana Nielsen of Lund University found that these criticisms aren’t entirely accurate.
“According to our estimates, electric cars were cheaper to drive in the 1920s thanks to cheap electricity.” They may have cost more to purchase than combustion engine vehicles, but they didn’t need expensive gasoline and required less maintenance.
Not only that, but early EVs were so lightweight that some models could travel over 50 miles on a single charge (the best could go over 100 miles). Consumer-grade EVs may have been limited to speeds of between 12 and 20 MPH, significantly slower than their gas-guzzling equivalents, but companies like Baker Electric proved that more advanced EVs could reach 60 or 100 MPH.
But in the words of Josef Taalbi, “car manufacturers chose technology based on conditions that prevailed at the beginning of the 20th century.” If you were a car manufacturer in an area without a proper power grid, for example, then there would be no point in building electric cars—your customers couldn’t use them!
According to Hana Neilsen, “the electricity market for households was not profitable for private electricity producers,” so electric infrastructure wasn’t widespread in the early 20th century. By the time that the U.S. government made a strong commitment to electric infrastructure as part of the New Deal, “the industry had already become locked into a technology choice that was difficult to change.” It chose gas cars.
Several other factors led to the failure of early EVs, including advertising practices. Electric cars were usually marketed toward women, while fast and stinky gas cars were branded for adventurous men. Early EVs also had trouble on unpaved roads, a factor that (when combined with the lack of electric infrastructure), limited their long-range use and contributed to their gendered image.
Still, models designed by Josef Taalbi and Hana Nielsen show that electric vehicles could have survived the 20th century if a New Deal happened 15 years earlier. Gas cars would still have the advantage of speed and range, but the two forms of vehicle may have co-existed. Such an outcome would have significantly reduced carbon emissions and pollution during the 20th century, and of course, it would have accelerated the development of new battery technologies.