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The Long Delayed Future of the Automobile

Published: May 12, 2012
ElectrovairII batteries feature in car

“Seven different companies are known to be working on electric automobiles.”

The year was 1960 and the timing couldn’t have been better. Gasoline prices had risen to 31¢ a gallon (!), and auto emissions were gathering in city skies, turning the horizon into an orange haze. Electric automobiles were beginning to look like a good idea again.

Once they had been highly popular.  Back in 1900, in fact, there had been more electric cars on the road thangasoline-powered models. But consumers eventually came to prefer the explosive bursts of power they got from internal-combustion engines. The quiet, sedate electric car came to be viewed as a “glassed-in drawing rooms on wheels,” and was left in the dust of transporation history.

But now it was 1960 and, as J. C. Furnas wrote, things had changed:

The price of electricity has gone down by two-thirds while the cost of gasoline, with taxes, has almost tripled.

It was time to revive the electric car industry. One company was already claiming remarkable savings of money and energy.

On the average, each electric car with batteries being recharged at night will use fifty dollars’ worth of juice a year. And most of the current will be drawn at off-peak hours after midnight, which means far more efficient use of generating equipment.

However, Furnas was quick to explain the limitations.

"Hey, look at the old car!" A 1920 Detroit Electric, still running in 1960.

You can’t rip engine and gas tank out of a heavy, Detroit-sized car, substitute batteries and electric motor, and expect dazzling performance. Instead of a more-than-l00-horsepower engine, you [will] have one or two electric motors delivering four to sixteen horsepower at best.So the new electric must be as small as a foreign economy car and specially engineered for lightness—glass and plastic get the call as body materials. And then you [must] settle for… forty miles per hour top speed, and ninety to 100 miles’ range per recharge.

These numbers held true for cars powered by traditional batteries. But several companies, including Union Carbide, Lockheed, Dow Chemical, General Electric, Gulf Oil, and Chrysler, were working on a more powerful source of electricity: the “fuel cell.”

The fuel cell’s efficiency is amazing. The best-designed electric-power plant, burning oil or coal to make steam to run a generator, cannot transform into electricity more than 40 per cent of the potential energy in the fuel used. Internal combustion engines are even less efficient. But fuel cells are getting close to 80 per cent under laboratory conditions and will soon do better.

The 1963 Chrysler Turbine

But for all its promise,  the electric car lost momentum. Two years later, Chrysler was off pursuing another Big Idea: the turbine engine.

The gas-turbine engine will run on any fuel that will flow through a pipe and ignite with air. Diesel and fuel oil, kerosene, white gasoline, Greasy Kid Stuff*, moonshine, and presumably even Chanel No. 5 for motorists addicted to conspicuous consumption —all will work just fine.

Chrysler is prepared to provide turbines in volume by 1966 or 1967.

[* hands up, anyone who remembers where this phrase originated—ed.]

Electric cars had apparently posed too many problems to succeed.  Turbines had too many advantages to fail:

A turbine would use about 300 pounds less metal than a conventional V-8. In a sales year such as 1963, this would amount to an aggregate saving of more than 1,000,000  tons of metal.

The turbine, with only about 60 major parts, would be far simpler and cheaper to produce.

Demand for motor oil would slacken enormously. There would be no further need for antifreezes, rust inhibitors, or special lubricants. Other casualties: pistons, rings, valves, radiators, fan belts and carburetors. Spark-plug sales would plummet— the turbine uses only one plug.

And yet… Chrysler built only 5 prototypes and 50 production models. Detroit got over its infatuation with turbines and, by 1967, was back to flirting with electric cars.

Ford and General Motors announced this fall that they were working on new electric cars, and Sen. Warren G. Magnuson (D., Wash.) introduced a bill to spend $10 million developing such a vehicle.

Once again, the automakers hoping to get consumers excited about the electric car. As they told Post author Roy Bongartz:

There is hardly anything in it or on it to wear out or go on the blink.

Gone with the engine itself are motor oil, filter, pump, and pressure gauge; pistons and rings; generator, distributor, spark plugs, air filter, radiator, water pump, hoses, antifreeze, fan and fan belt.

There is no driveshaft—thus no hump in the floor— no transmission, no starter motor, no exhaust pipe, and—of course—no exhaust.

The lovable feature of the electric is what it hasn’t got: it hasn’t got troubles.

The Corvair, electrified.

Chevrolet had already begun showing off its prototype, a version of the Corvair called the Electrovair II.

With a 115-horsepower motor weighing just 130 pounds, it could reach 60 mph in just 16 seconds.

The top speed is 80. Though it weighs 800 pounds more than the Corvair, the car was engineered to equal Corvair performance except in range: Electrovair II’s range is only 80 miles.

As it turned out the electric car was left in long-term parking for over 50 years, along with other auto innovations like—

• the driverless car, which is “guided by a continuous cable… on the roadway [that] communicates with a computer in the car… to control steering and speed.”

• the air-cushioned car, like the Ford Levacar, which rode on a friction-free cushion of air.

• the single-control design: “the ‘Unicontrol’… a short gear stick that controls the acceleration and deceleration, steering and braking of a car.”

The 1962 GM Firebird III Turbine with Unicontrol.

Where did they all go? Why did none of them ever reach regular production? Why did automotive technology remain virtually unchanged for over a century?

It’s easy to say the automakers didn’t want to change, but that wouldn’t explain the money and time they poured into developing new vehicles.

Some have argued that the oil companies suppressed any technology that would reduce the nation’s dependence on petroleum.

A less fanciful but more plausible explanation is that very few consumers are “Early Adapters,” as Geoffrey Moore described them in his book, “Crossing The Chasm.” Most Americans won’t buy new technology—no matter how amazing it is—until they see its immediate benefits. As long as gasoline hovered around $2.00 a gallon, and the cost of gas-powered vehicles remained affordable, the couldn’t see any advantage in more for an electric car.

 

POST script:

You probably noticed 1960 price of gasoline above (31¢). The Department of Energy has an interesting graph that adjusts the price of gasoline to 2004 dollars (when *sigh* gas was still less than $2.00 a gallon.) Their figures show that the low price of gasoline (“Current $ Gas Price”) across the 20th Century, was actually not so inexpensive when translated into modern costs (“Constant $ Gas Price).

 

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  • Ima Ryma

    Henry Ford became a best friend
    Of Thomas Alva Edison.
    A lot of camping trips they’d spend
    Planning out the future for fun.
    One such dream – the electric car,
    The marvel of the coming age,
    One designed to go fast and far,
    Affordable and all the rage.
    Ford next to Edison would yell
    How this project was success bound.
    Cuz Edison could not hear well,
    It never quite got off the ground.

    Many a dream falls to the fate –
    A failure to communicate.