The early 1900’s began a growth period for electric vehicles (EVs). Electric cars were in their heyday, accounting for about one-third of all vehicles on the road and yielding strong sales ten years into the new century. EVs held the land speed record and electric cars were becoming more esteemed and accepted in society (EAA, 2016). To better understand the popularity of EVs, it is important to understand the development of the personal vehicle. As the world stepped into the 20th century, the horse was still the primary means of transportation. However, as we prospered as a nation, Americans turned to the newly invented motor vehicle; which would begin our nation’s lifelong love affair with the automobile.
During this period there were three primary “fuel” sources; steam, gasoline, and electric. The appeal in EVs was the lack of vibration, smell, and noise associated with gasoline cars. EVs did not require gear changes or a manual effort to start. In contrast, gasoline cars of the day required the driver to hand crank the motor to start the engine. As for steam, it was a tried and true energy source, yet impractical for personal vehicles. Steam-powered vehicles had their drawbacks such as long start-up times, especially in cold weather. Furthermore, steam power meant vehicles were fuelled by water requiring frequent fill-ups and limited range. EVs freed the driver of many of the drawbacks of gasoline and steam making them the favored choice by Clara Ford, the wife of automotive pioneer Henry Ford.
1908 brought the beginning of a new era for the automotive industry as Henry Ford had built his first model T. Sales of electric cars peaked in the early 1910s and in 1911, the Wood’s Motor Vehicle Company released the first gasoline-electric hybrid. However, the Wood’s hybrid would later prove to be a commercial failure as customers didn’t see the value in a vehicle that combined both technologies.
An initial drawback of electric cars was the lack of power infrastructure. By 1912, many homes were wired for electricity allowing for an increase in EV popularity. At the beginning of the 20th century, it is estimated that 40% of automobiles in the U.S were powered by steam, 38% by electricity, and 22% by gasoline (Rubenstein, 2014).
The present-day concern of “range” was a topic discussed in great detail in the early years of EV. There was a charging infrastructure in place, yet it was not substantial enough to meet the needs of the electric vehicle motorist. The solution represented itself as an exchangeable battery program introduced by the Hartford Electric Company in 1910 EV owners participating in the program would purchase a vehicle from the General Vehicle Company without a battery, then would buy their battery from Hartford Electric Co. and pay a fee to have their batteries recharged and serviced.
For the first decade of the 20th century, EVs were the automobile of choice and seemed to have unstoppable momentum. However, the winds of change were carrying disruption with them as new advances in technology were to reshape the auto industry once again.