At the dawn of automotive time, electric cars were preferred to both available alternatives -- gasoline and steam-powered vehicles -- for moving people and things from here to there. In the late 1890s, the Electric Auto Association says, EVs outsold gasoline-fueled cars by a ratio of ten to one.
Volatile and highly flammable, gasoline was scary to store and carry around -- one good reason why many car owners of the time had the garage on the far side of the property, away from the house. Scalding-hot steam was nearly as frightening, and it was less than quick, easy or fun to make and use.
By contrast, electric volts were easy to store, easy to use and easy and cheap to replace. EVs didn't go very far or fast, but who needed to back then? Early electrics were perceived as both better and safer for tooling around town, and as huge improvements over horses. You didn't need to boil water or risk breaking an arm cranking a gasoline engine to life. Just turn the switch and step on the pedal (a rheostat, like a volume control, varying current to the motor). With no annoying noise or exhaust contrail, people didn't hear or smell you coming and going. Once there, switch it off and plug it in to recharge your batteries while sipping your tea.
In the year 1900, a poll at the New York City National Automobile Show confirmed that the people's first choice for automobile power was electric, followed closely by steam. The nearly 4,200 motorcars built that year were split about equally between electric, steam and gasoline.
Enthusiasm for steam-powered personal transport soon waned, while gas and electric grew; the former offering higher speeds and longer range, the latter preferred for local use, largely by women. Then came dual death blows for EVs: Mass production, which substantially lowered costs for volume producers over smaller specialty makers; and the electric starter, which enabled anyone to operate a gas-powered car. And, as they have become steadily more civilized, quieter and cleaner, internal combustion engines (ICEs) have dominated since.
Still, now as then, electric power enjoys advantages over gasoline:
- Zero tailpipe emissions: Zero tailpipes, in fact. Electric motors emit nothing and couldn't care less where their volts were generated. Increasingly in the future, they can come from squeaky-clean sources such as solar, wind and hydro power.
- Lower emissions regardless of source: Per mile traveled, EVs produce five to ten percent of the potentially harmful emissions of a typical internal combustion engine, even when their electricity is generated at an oil- or coal-fired plant.
- Higher efficiency: On average, electric propulsion is three times more efficient (in the amount of stored energy that gets to the wheels) than gasoline ICEs.
- Mechanically simple: Because its motor generates maximum torque from launch, a battery electric needs no transmission. It also needs no complex pollution controls.
- Regenerative braking: The propulsion motor becomes a generator during coasting and braking, and can recapture 20-25 percent of the energy that conventional brakes waste as heat. Another bonus: the vehicle's regular brakes are lightly used and last much longer.
- Quiet operation: no need for an exhaust system, let alone mufflers.
Despite these advantages, the EV energy storage challenge remains. Pure EVs will remain low-volume niche vehicles until a safe, reliable and affordable battery (or other) system is developed that competes with a tank of gasoline in terms of driving range and charge time. Until then, gas-electric hybrid vehicles will offer the best marriage of EV and ICE advantages.
That's half the story. Here's the other: