Century-Old Electric Car Technology Still Doesn't Sell

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Jay Leno electric car

Enthusiasts can’t overcome their amazement at the innovation of electric cars – technology that is 100-plus years old. 

 In Friday’s edition of the Vancouver Sun, writer Andrew McCredie – who is tooling around in a modern, all-electric Nissan Leaf and blogging about it – marveled at the 1912 electric car produced by the Anderson Car Company, which was on public display at the local “Electrafest” over the weekend. McCredie, seemingly blinded by the nostalgia surrounding the car, ignored the obvious: that its cost, range, and efficiency illustrate that there has been no significant technological advancement, in practical terms for American usefulness, with today’s electric vehicles.

“Perhaps most amazing is that electric cars were, in fact, the norm back in 1912, as gasoline engines were still very much in their infancy…,” McCredie wrote. “This particular car was purchased new by a certain Dr. French in 1912 for the princely sum of $3,200, a price more than a large house of the day.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator, that electric car would cost about $75,000 today. Considering the billions of dollars in state and federal government grants and tax breaks for cars like the Leaf and Chevy Volt – which retail roughly for $37,000 and $41,000 respectively – that figure at a minimum aligns with the electric car of 100 years ago. And it may be worse, as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy estimated that each Volt sold through last year had $250,000 in taxpayer subsidies behind it.

So the sales price for electric cars is no better than 100 years ago – what about how far it travels on a full charge? The major all-electric vehicle on the market today, the Leaf, was once touted to get 100 miles on a charge but after 18 months of experience with it, no one can credibly claim it gets more than 80 miles per full charge. In real-life situations when people use their heaters or air conditioners, or must travel up and down hills, it’s much less than that. For example, one Tennessee owner last year needed four recharging stops to travel 180 miles.

So how far have we come since 1912? Not very, as McCredie explained.

“Dr. French’s electric car was originally powered by nickel-iron Edison batteries that provided the car with a respectable range of 161 kilometers, which is similar to the full-charge range of the 2012 Nissan Leaf’s lithium-ion battery pack.”

Another electric car from Dr. French’s era, the 1909 Baker Electric, was showcased a few years ago by “Tonight Show” host and car enthusiast Jay Leno (pictured with the Baker). The video segment is viewable on YouTube.

“It goes 110 miles on a charge,” Leno explains in the video. “As you can see, electric cars haven’t changed a whole lot range-wise.”

Of course where the technology has improved – as it has with gas-powered vehicles – is in size and design, and with the ability to travel at higher speeds. But it hasn’t with the length of time it takes to recharge car batteries. Today’s Leaf and Volt (whose range is extended by gasoline power) require at least four hours for a full recharge, unless you happen upon a so-called “fast charger” that will do the job in 30 minutes. Those are almost impossible to find.

As Kris De Decker of Low Tech Magazine explains, EV recharging at the turn of the century – in some ways – was more efficient. 

“If today’s supporters of EVs would dig into the specifications and the sales brochures of early 20th century electric ‘horseless carriages,’ their enthusiasm would quickly disappear,” he wrote in May 2010. “Fast-charged batteries (to 80 percent capacity in 10 minutes), automated battery swapping stations, public charging poles, load balancing,… in-wheel motors, regenerative braking: it was all there in the late 1800s or the early 1900s. It did not help (prevent the demise of EVs). Most surprisingly, however, is the seemingly non-existent progress of battery technology (today).”

Indeed, scores of years and billions of dollars (much of it that once belonged to taxpayers) dedicated to improvement of electricity storage has yielded little, at least as far as its usefulness for human transportation is concerned. Nevertheless the amount of public money that continues to pour into still-obsolete electric vehicles, batteries and chargers is obscene. About $8.5 billion from the Recovery Act was devoted to loan guarantees for the manufacture of electric vehicles, including $1.4 billion for Nissan to retrofit a Tennessee plant to produce the Leaf. When completed this year the company says it will be able to produce up to 150,000 Leafs annually.

Another loan guarantee recipient, Ford Motor Company, was bestowed with $5.9 million in taxpayer backing. The first Ford Focus Electrics began to roll off the lines late last year. Yet the “stimulation” that was supposed to come with the subsidization of electric vehicle production hasn’t materialized – in fact, the Obama administration has over-stimulated battery production as poor EV sales will lead to surplus inventory.

“A looming shakeout in the industry,” reported the Detroit Free Press in April, “which would likely include plant closures and layoffs, is also likely to touch off a fierce debate over whether federal and state government officials made a major error by using more than $1 billion in grants and tax credits to spur massive investments that are not yet needed.”

General Motors sold a paltry 1,860 Volts in May (compared to 29,579 Chevy Malibus as my NLPC colleague Mark Modica noted), while Nissan sold an embarrassing 510 Leafs. Meanwhile Ford has sold only 16 Focus Electrics – total – so far, but the a company official told USA Today it isn’t trying very hard to sell them.

“The marketing of the Focus Electric is to people who buy electric vehicles, not to you and me,” said Jim Farley, Ford head of global marketing.

So there’s something else that hasn’t changed since 1912: people aren’t buying electric cars. That's billions of taxpayer dollars to fund a technology few people want, and that manufacturers don’t really care if they sell. And this was supposed to go a long way to help fight global warming. We’re doomed.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center.