If the electric car was doomed to failure 100 years ago, what of its commercial equivalent?
Initially, electric trucks did well in the market. Fleet managers preferred them over unreliable and noisy gasoline rivals and, to start with, their modest pace was acceptable to an industry where horse traction had been the norm. By 1905, almost two-thirds of America’s heavyduty commercial vehicle fleet was electric. According to historian Gijs Mom, in cities like New York, an electric vehicle was often the only alternative to the horse in many harbour-side warehousing districts because gasoline engines were banned due to the fire hazard they posed. As a result, fire insurance was far cheaper for a company using electric vehicles. Research undertaken by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also found that the electric truck was anywhere between 7 and 24 per cent cheaper than horses in an urban delivery environment. The lifespan of an electric truck was also considerably longer than its gasoline-powered rival.
Many of these trucks were built by the General Vehicle Company, established by General Electric in 1906, operating out of Long Island. Within the space of 5 years it manufactured 1,600 trucks, mainly for breweries, department stores and for bus companies. By 1920, New York had a 4,000 strong fleet of electric parcel delivery trucks.
Commercial manufacturers were supported by the electricity suppliers (the central stations) who saw power-hungry trucks as the perfect customers for their excess electricity. In September 1910, they set up the Electric Vehicle Association of America (EVAA), to help boost sales. Inaugurating the association, President William Blood stated the EVAA’s principal aim was to inform the public that ‘the perfected electric vehicle is an accomplished fact’. Despite that bold statement, most of the electric car manufacturers of the day considered the association to be largely concerned with trucks and not passenger vehicles.
In a bid to encourage wider adoption of electric vehicles, the EVAA put pressure on central station managers to purchase electric cars and trucks for local transport. It also offered cut-price deals for drivers who wanted to charge during off-peak hours. In one dazzling piece of clear thinking, the EVAA tried to adopt a common charging plug, so that different makes could be replenished at any of its stations. But, as seemed to be so common, these honourable intentions were thwarted by petty jealousies, short-sighted thinking and indifference.
Gijs Mom claims that garages outside the cosy central station élite found themselves placed at a deliberate commercial disadvantage – they did not receive the discount on parts enjoyed by their bigger rivals or a special rate for charging current. This was in marked contrast to garages selling and maintaining gasoline cars, which enjoyed substantial manufacturer support. In addition, the organization disapproved of dealers who sold both electric and gasoline vehicles.
Things soon turned sour. Electric vehicle manufacturers were unhappy with the central stations’ efforts to monopolize service and supply. Proposals to set up a fairer infrastructure, circulated to 1,400 central stations across the United States, didn’t even receive the courtesy of a reply. As for the publicity campaign, the New York branch did manage to publish a book for adventurous types with detailed route maps of scenic drives within a radius of 100 miles (160km), including crucial information about the nearest charging stations, and the EVAA published a map of the Lincoln Highway, which crossed the entire United States, in a bid to show that touring with an electric car was not out of the question. However, the longest distance between stations was 122 miles (195km) – a distance that would have left most batteries exhausted long before ever reaching it. Back-biting and open disagreements were ever-present during EVAA conventions. Instead of working for the common good, suppliers and manufacturers spent most of their time arguing. Eventually the EVAA’s activities were folded into the more powerful National Electric Light Association (NELA), which set up an electric vehicle section.
By the mid-1920s, the central generating stations’ brief love affair with the electric vehicle had come to an end. They were more interested in the possibilities of refrigeration, which consumed far more electricity than battery-powered cars, and, despite a scaled-down publicity campaign, support for electric vehicles was largely left to individual stations.
David Kirsch, whose book The Electric Car and the Burden of History discusses the issue at some length, wrote:
Had the association existed in the late 1890s, when [electricity, steam and gasoline] technologies were, in certain respects, equally ‘weak’, concerted intervention by a powerful industry might have been able to tip the scales towards a more robust separate sphere for the electric vehicle. Instead, a decade-long head start for internal combustion was too much for the central station industry to overcome.
In other words, by dragging its feet the electricity supply industry entered the fray too late to make a difference.
In one area, however, electric propulsion did succeed. Whereas electric cars proved only fleetingly popular, electric trolleybuses operated in towns and cities throughout the world for many decades – and some still do. Perhaps this was because they overcame the problem of battery storage by taking power direct from overhead cables, rather like an electric tram, although unlike a tram they had no need of tracks (and were, therefore, considerably cheaper to build). In Europe, some countries took the concept further, introducing trolly trucks. In Spain, these commercial vehicles used the trolleybus infrastructure; however, in Eastern Europe they had their own exclusive overhead lines. Some 800 trolleybus systems were built and operated. More than 300 still survive. However, apart from the fairground bumper car, no one has ever tried to design a trolley car as the technical hurdles would be almost insurmountable.
In Britain, the postal service had enjoyed a brief flirtation with electric delivery vans. When the adoption of a nationwide fleet of motorized vehicles was first examined it was felt electric trucks would be most suitable due, in part, to their silent running. The Royal Mail was using Daimler-built electric mail vans as early as 1899, but these early experiments proved inconclusive and the service refused to commit to a large order. However, in August 1920, it purchased a modest fleet of thirteen electric trucks for transporting sacks of mail between the main Birmingham sorting office and Birmingham New Street railway station. They proved so useful that soon small electric trucks, which resembled a basic version of the later electric golf cart, were plying their trade on railway station platforms across the UK. Electric trucks and mail vans were also used by the US mail service. In New York a battery-exchange system was even set up to keep them running. Outside the major American cities, however, the petrol truck was the delivery vehicle of choice.
By the end of the 1920s, the gasoline engine enjoyed total supremacy in America and Europe. Although a handful of electric cars were produced, or remanufactured, to special order, their numbers were tiny by comparison to the internal combustion competition. Between 1919 and 1925 production of electric cars in the US dwindled from a not-especially impressive 2,498 to just 22.
The year 1929, before the Great Depression, was a high watermark for the car industry. American manufacturers built 5.3m of them – 4.5m for the domestic market and 800,000 for export – a record-breaking production run that was not surpassed until 1949. Just 757 were electric cars. Three companies, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, accounted for 80 per cent of the country’s car manufacturing output and none of them built an electric car. The US had 26.7m registered vehicles, which covered an estimated 198 billion miles during the year. Worldwide there were more than 30 million cars in regular use but only a tiny proportion was electric.