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  • Writer's pictureSylvain Tornare

Why Was the Electric Car Forgotten for 100 Years?

In 1897, the best-selling car was... electric. At the beginning of the 20th century, a fleet of electric taxis travelled around New York City. In Switzerland, Tribelhorn set up a large-scale charging network. Despite this, electric cars disappeared from the roads during almost a century.

Carequest Car Broker Switzerland, Frichtle electric car 1910

The electric car is not a new idea. Nearly one-third of the American car fleet was electric in the early 20th century. Despite several advantages in terms of ease of use, comfort, pollution, and performance, electric vehicles were quickly overtaken by combustion vehicles which became the obvious solution. It was not until almost a century later that the electric market got a second wind. It was Toyota with the Prius and Tesla, which contributed to the growth of the modern electric car.

This week we look at the reasons behind this trajectory in automotive history.


Technological progress

In 1912, the market for electric cars reached a peak. Never before had sales of such vehicles been so high. However, many advances were made in improving combustion engines.


The first internal combustion engines had to be started by hand crank, which was physical and for some social circles unthinkable. Electric cars did not suffer from this disadvantage. The first electric starter came on the market in 1912, eliminating the need for hand cranks. With this invention, the electric car lost an advantage.


Other advances reduced production costs. For example, combustion cars were often two to three times cheaper than their electric counterparts. These savings boosted the popularity of combustion engines.


Although there were advances in battery technology, they were not fast enough. Moreover, they allowed only marginal improvements. Also, the slow implementation of electric networks in the countryside coupled with the limited range of electric cars slowed down sales.



Ford Model T

Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908. This inexpensive vehicle presented a severe threat to electric cars, which, at the time, generally cost three times more. Moreover, with the introduction of the assembly line in 1913, Ford increased its productivity and gained a serious competitive advantage over its competitors. This innovation allowed him to reduce the production time of his cars by more than 85%, thus minimising his production costs and ensuring that his product was affordable for all.



Range

After World War II, the US government improved its national road network. This made it easier to drive across the country. Although charging facilities existed in cities, non-urban areas had limited access to electricity. The short range of electric cars made them suitable for short city trips. For longer journeys, the petrol engine was more attractive. In addition, the exploitation of oil production plants on American soil, particularly in Texas, guaranteed low petrol prices.



Lacking knowledge

By the mid-1930s, the electric car had disappeared from the road. In Switzerland, oil supply difficulties pushed back this deadline by about ten years. Despite several attempts and projects during the oil crisis of the 1970s and the ecological awareness of the 1990s, such vehicles did not become competitive until almost 80 years later. The lack of research and knowledge about batteries did not allow manufacturers to develop products that met consumer expectations. Poor range and power were the main causes. Furthermore, it did not justify the massive investments needed to improve the technology and the necessary infrastructure.



Conclusion

The electric car was competitive until the beginning of the 20th century. It was more convenient, less polluting and sufficient for short distances. However, the speed of technical development of combustion engines coupled with Henry Ford's inventiveness put an end to the growth of the electric market. By the early 1920s, the combustion engine was cheaper to buy and operate and provided a greater range. In addition, most of the disadvantages of this means of propulsion had disappeared. Due to the lack of investment in this sector, electrics were put on the sidelines for about 40 years. Then a few projects proved that the technology was not yet market-ready. Finally, it was not until several decades later and the inflow of private and public funds that the first competitive 100% electric model arrived on the market.


 

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