The Birth of Electric Mobility in the Early 1900s and its Significance in the Contemporary World

By Gabriel Tejam. 

In the annals of automotive history, the 20th century appears, at first glance, to be the age of the internal combustion engine. Names like Henry Ford and technologies like the Model T have taken on almost mythic proportions. However, hidden in the shadows of this well-lit stage are the earliest pioneers of electric vehicles, who more than a century ago were already grappling with questions and challenges strikingly similar to those we face today.

As we sit on the cusp of an automotive revolution, fueled by concerns over climate change and technological advancement, it is both illuminating and humbling to consider that the quest for electric mobility is not a new endeavor, but a recurring dream. A 1910 article in The New York Times titled “Electric Vehicles Coming Into More General Use” gives us a glimpse into a world not so different from our own. The article points to the advantages of electric cars, from reduced air pollution to the lower cost of electricity compared to gasoline. One could be forgiven for thinking that the article was a contemporary piece rather than a century-old commentary.

However, in those formative years of automotive development, the internal combustion engine ultimately prevailed. Not necessarily because it was superior, but because it was more amenable to the infrastructural and economic realities of the time. Gasoline was cheap and abundantly available and internal combustion engines could travel long distances without refueling, a considerable advantage given that electric vehicles were hampered by limited battery life. The road to obsolescence was further paved when Charles Kettering invented the electric starter in 1912, which eliminated the cumbersome and sometimes dangerous hand-crank start.

Fast-forward to the present day and we find ourselves at a parallel crossroads. Such as our counterparts in the early 1900s, we now face technological, infrastructural, and social challenges. Current electric vehicles are technologically sophisticated but remain burdened by issues such as charging time, battery lifespan, and range. A 2019 study by the Boston Consulting Group highlights these concerns, noting that while 70% of Americans are interested in electric cars, less than 30% are willing to tolerate a charging time of six hours [1].

Similarly, contemporary cities are rife with infrastructural hurdles. Whether it’s the monumental task of retrofitting centuries-old cities with adequate charging stations, or the bureaucratic tangles associated with new public policy, modern society finds itself wrestling with obstacles that are eerily reminiscent of those faced by early automotive pioneers.

The questions that society faced then and still faces now are not merely technical but also deeply social and cultural. The automobile was and is not just a mode of transportation, but an emblem of freedom, status, and technological prowess. The hesitation to adopt electric vehicles cannot be attributed to range anxiety or charging time alone; it is also tied to a deep-rooted automotive culture that holds the internal combustion engine as an iconic representation of human achievement.

As we navigate the complexities of modern electric vehicle adoption, the lessons from our history are not just cautionary tales but also sources of inspiration. The problems both then and now are surmountable, and the rewards are substantial. To move forward, we need more than innovation; we need a comprehensive understanding of the multi-faceted challenges that lie ahead—challenges that are as social and political as they are technological.

In the early 20th century, the burgeoning petroleum industry quickly recognized the potential windfall that a gasoline-driven automotive landscape could represent. Their interests, unsurprisingly, were well served by the promotion of internal combustion engines. Therefore, an early form of lobbying began to ensure this technology’s prominence. A seminal moment in the early 1900s called the Texas Oil Boom not only increased the availability of cheap gasoline, but also offered a financial boon for stakeholders in the oil sector.

As the power of the oil lobby grew, electric vehicles found themselves increasingly marginalized. The internal combustion engine was not just winning in the market; it was winning in the halls of power. In many ways, these early influencers set the trajectory for the next century of automotive travel. Public policy, including road development plans and fuel taxation schemes, was designed around gasoline-powered vehicles, which further deepened the barriers to entry for alternative methods of transportation [2]. 

Today, we see the same dynamic reenacted with a contemporary twist. The oil and gas industry still wields significant influence, but now they are joined by other stakeholders who also have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. This is not merely speculation; the Guardian reported in 2019 that the five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies spend about $200 million every year on lobbying to delay, control, or block policies that address climate change [3].

Meanwhile, incumbents in the automotive industry have been known to resist full commitment to electric vehicles, fearing the destruction of their existing, profitable internal combustion engine models. While some are making strides toward electrification, the hesitation is palpable. Consider, for instance, the “Dieselgate” scandal involving Volkswagen, which laid bare the lengths to which traditional automakers might go to sidestep emissions standards [4]. 

Policy is also a significant stumbling block. Despite the Paris Agreement and other international accords aimed at accelerating green technologies, policy frameworks often lack the incentives or infrastructure to support rapid EV adoption. In some cases, policies may inadvertently create barriers, like zoning laws that make it difficult to install public charging stations or arcane electricity tariffs that deter would-be EV adopters.

The critical takeaway here is that the adoption of electric vehicles is not simply a matter of technological feasibility but a complex interplay of social, economic, and political factors. Just as the road to the prominence of internal combustion engines was smoothed by a favorable policy environment and powerful lobbies, the path to a sustainable automotive future may be rocky because of similar, contemporary obstacles.

Whether it’s the 1910s or the 2020s, we must recognize that technological progress does not occur in a vacuum, but is inextricably linked to the power structures, vested interests, and social narratives of its time. To usher in an era of electric vehicles, it will take more than technical ingenuity; it will require a rethinking of the complex web of interests and influences that both enable and constrain innovation. Only with this holistic understanding can we hope to drive electric vehicles out of the periphery and into the mainstream.

Bibliography

[1]  “Revving Up for a World of Fully Electric Cars,” Boston Consulting Group, 2019

[2]  “The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age,” Gijs Mom, 2004.

[3] “Revealed: the 20 Firms Behind a Third of All Carbon Emissions,” The Guardian, 2019

[4] “Volkswagen’s Diesel Fraud Makes Critic of Secret Code a Prophet,” The New York Times, 2015

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