Why did they wait so long? – Mick Raven
The history of the electric car is longer than you might think
2nd May 2019
When Labor announced its plan to boost the number of electric cars in Australia over the next decade, an election campaign battleground opened up.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused his rival of wanting to “end the weekend when it comes to his policy on electric vehicles”; Bill Shorten returned fire by accusing the Government of running a “scare campaign”.
But electric cars aren’t new — they’ve been around for more than a century.
And for a moment at the advent of the automobile industry, they even threatened to become the dominant mode of transport.
From the late 19th century, electric cars began to trickle onto the streets of major American cities, representing a formidable part of the automobile trade.
A carriage could now be transported by electricity instead of horse — the culmination of centuries of technological innovation and invention.
The electric car soon became the favoured method of personal transportation, well and truly surpassing its underdeveloped, gas-guzzling counterpart.
“In 1901, 38 per cent of the cars were electric, and 20 per cent or so were petrol, and in the middle, there was the outgoing technology of steam,” says technologist and historian David Kirsch.
“If you’d asked the great experts of their age in 1900 which technology would come to dominate the motor-based transportation, I think most learned people would have said electricity.”
But history would prove them wrong. Advances in internal combustion engines in the first decade of the 20th century lessened the relative advantages of the electric car.
“The unexpected progress of internal combustion … surprised everybody by making extraordinary advances in that first decade,” Professor Kirsch says.
“By 1910 you had the Model T, the iconic universal vehicle that was able to do almost everything that an electric vehicle could do and more.”
The Electric Vehicle Company, doomed to become a victim of its own business malpractice, was partly responsible for the demise of the product it was named for.
Founded in the final years of the 19th century, it rose to prominence with its Electrobats, considered the first truly useful electric car for day-to-day transportation.
The company pioneered a taxi system of leased vehicles that used service stations for quick battery changes and repair work.
In 1899 a syndicate of prominent car manufacturers took over the rising company to form the Lead Cab Trust, which hoped to develop a monopoly across the US.
It was the largest motor car manufacturer in the USA, but lost its position only two years later.
It faced rising competition from petrol-powered cars, but also hefty legal cases targeting its monopolistic practices.
The great hope of electric vehicles did not outlast the first decade of the 20th century.
The oil crash of the 1970s renewed attempts to reinvigorate the electric car.
But it wasn’t until 2008 that the first viable option emerged, thanks to Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors.
Its Roadster was first the serial production, all-electric car to use lithium-ion battery cells. It could travel a game-changing 320 kilometres per charge.
In 2016 Norway made the decision to ban the sales of petrol and diesel powered vehicles by 2025.
China, India, Germany, France, and Britain have since followed suit, with slightly less ambitious deadlines.
Sensing the oncoming change in the market, manufacturers are readily moving towards an electric future.
By 2017 Tesla’s global sales passed 250,000 units, in a market that now includes the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Bolt, amongst others.
That same year, Volvo announced it would produce only electric and hybrid vehicles, making it the first major automaker to abandon cars powered solely by the internal combustion engine.
“The recent announcement from Volvo strikes me as an acknowledgement that electrification is becoming normalised, at least for Volvo,” Professor Kirsch says.
Can electric cars go the distance?
The ABC test drives an electric car from Perth to Augusta to see if it can go the distance on Australia’s vast regional roads without running out of juice.
Into the future, electric car manufacturers must work out how to survive in a global auto industry that “has long struggled with over-capacity, and relatively low profit margins”.
“I couldn’t put an exact dollar figure on it but I think it is now clear to all the major players in the global auto industry that electrification is coming,” Professor Kirsch says.
“The question now is managing that transition in some way, figuring out how to survive, how to make money through the transition and to envision a future for each company.”
Australia the electric car nation?
Labor’s target is for half of all new cars sold in Australia by 2030 to be electric.
The Government has criticised Labor’s ambitions, but Senate Estimates has heard the Coalition’s own target is between 25 and 50 per cent.
While announcing Labor’s plan, Mr Shorten suggested that it might be time to see car manufacturing return to Australia.
“If electric vehicles are part of our future, we are going to provide cheap finance so I would like to see us making electric cars in Australia,” he said.
But Professor Kirsch believes that might be an over-zealous proposal.
“Australia has a long history of vehicle manufacture, which came to an end a couple of years ago, in part because of globalisation of the vehicle production process and massive oversupply,” he says.
Instead, he suggests that Australia’s real opportunity comes from its unique supply of lithium, the chemical used in the manufacturing of electric vehicle batteries.
“The lithium deposits speak to a unique opportunity for Australia because those are particularly valuable resources as we look out at the likely development of the global battery industry,” Professor Kirsch says.
“I think that’s a possibility looking forward, or I would say it’s a better option than trying to resuscitate final assembly in Australia.”
But as we move forward, Professor Kirsch says the ultimate warning from technological history is to be ready for anything.
“The horseless carriage was a crude approximation of what the modern automobile looks like,” he says.
“It involved taking a 19th century carriage that had a horse and just removing the horse.
“It was preposterous on its face but within a few years we had a whole new set of designs and products that we were using in a very different way.
“Technology surprises us, and we shouldn’t be surprised but we always are, that we can’t predict the future.”