‘The return to the electric motor is only just beginning and is still stumbling over the distribution network,’ said economist Pierre-Cyrille Hautcœur in his column on the Le Monde website. And it needs public investment into infrastructure not to fail as it did in the early 20th century.
‘In 1905, half the world’s cars were electric’
After the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine has now revealed the harshness of the transformations awaiting societies accustomed to material abundance. Consumers have been reluctant to face up to rising energy or food prices, and governments have been reduced to expedients that have often made the ecological problem worse and increased the cost of future adaptations. In such circumstances, the call for individual efforts has been as ubiquitous as it has been misplaced. A historical example has provided further evidence of this: The emergence of the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions and urban pollution, the internal combustion engine.
As Josef Taalbi and Hana Nielsen recalled in a recent article (The Role of Energy Infrastructure in Shaping Early Adoption of Electric and Gasoline Cars, Nature Energy, October 7, 2021), the electric motor was developed in parallel with the internal combustion engine, in the very late 19th century, to compete with and replace steam engines considered unsafe for individual use. Following the invention of the rechargeable lead battery by Gaston Planté, in 1859, and its successive improvements, electric vehicles had the appeal of modernity (in 1937, again, Raoul Dufy would be able to paint The Electricity Fairy for the Parisian Electricity Distribution Company, without ridicule). Between 1881 and 1900, new models multiplied in the principal developed countries. In 1899, the automobile speed record had been set at 108 km/h by an electric vehicle, the famous Jamais-Contente. Industrial production struggled to choose between electric and internal combustion engines. In 1900, nearly twice as many electric cars were produced as gasoline-powered cars, and by 1905, half the world’s cars were electric.
The keys to the competition
The ascendancy of the internal combustion engine around 1910 has usually been explained by the fall in the price of oil and the improvement of engines, followed by the mass production of the famous Ford T from 1913. Nevertheless, the electric car was appreciated for its reliability, cleanliness, silence and ease of driving, and its price remained very close to that of combustion engine cars for a long time. In reality, it was the inadequacy of the distribution network, especially in the United States (which became the world’s main producer and innovator when the Great War broke out), that played the main role. The electric car was well suited to cities, where recharging was easy. It was adopted by the post offices of various countries, including France, and by cab networks, but electrifying the vast rural areas of the United States was not profitable until the 1920s, too late to bring back electric motors.
By studying the U.S. automobile market at the county level between 1895 and 1942, the Nature Energy paper has shown very specifically that the relative availability of electricity and the gasoline distribution infrastructure were the keys to the competition between the two technologies. If the electric grid had been developed earlier, electric vehicles would likely have remained dominant (their estimate suggests that with the 1922 grid in 1902, that share would have remained above two-thirds), and a lot of CO2 emissions would have been avoided.
While global warming was not observed at the time, urban pollution, on the other hand, was an issue that could have led to greater investment in the power grid, but this would have meant fighting the power of the burgeoning oil companies and providing public financial support. One hundred years later, and despite cries of alarm since the 1970s, the return to the electric motor is only just beginning and is still stumbling over the distribution network. Let us hope governments will now give more active consideration to the infrastructure programs required by the shocks we are facing.