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The long history of "tomorrow's car"

The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age - Gijs Mom

The relative novelty of the electric vehicle today can obscure the fact that it has a history dating back to the beginnings of the automobile itself. For while most people still drive cars and trucks fueled by gasoline, electricity was a motive power adopted by quite a few vehicle manufacturers in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this book, Gijs Mom explores issues of technology, infrastructure, and consumer culture to explain why it was that electric vehicles failed to become the dominant vehicle type in the early years of automobile development.

Mom divides the history of the electric vehicle into three "generations." In the first, which spanned from 1881 until 1902, automobiles were primarily toys of the wealthy and the enthusiast. The technological limitations facing electric cars — the limited rage and lack of places to replenish their motive energy — were shared by their gasoline and steam-powered counterparts. While gasoline-powered vehicles began developing an advantage in range by the end of this period, the zero emissions and overall cleanliness of electric vehicles still made electric cars a preferred option for many drivers in cities, where distance driving was less of an issue.

By the beginning of the 20th century, a consensus had formed that poor battery performance was the main constraint holding back the development of the electric vehicle. During the second generation, which Mom dates from 1902 until the mid-1920s, improved battery designs helped to address this by improving their capacity. Electric cars continued to enjoy a place in the automotive market, particularly for urban fleet usage, the well-to-do, and women. The key appeal for the latter group was the ease of starting electric vehicles, which did not require the physically demanding cranking required of early gas-powered vehicles. It was the adoption of the electric starter by the early 1920s (in essence, the partial "electrification" of the gasoline-powered vehicle) which Mom sees as cementing the dominance of the gasoline vehicle, though he notes the persistence of electric vehicle usage for some organizations well into the post-World War II era, long before the late-20th century revival of interest in electric vehicles asserted itself.

Mom's history of the electric vehicle is a fascinating study of the factors at play in the adoption of technology, in this case one the ramifications of which are still being addressed today. Though his prose is painstaking and occasionally burdened with conceptual jargon, his assiduous research and detailed analysis provides a well-reasoned explanation for the early failure of electric cars to become the dominant automotive technology. With its account of technological cul-de-sacs and cultural headwinds, readers will find within its pages a story with some echoes of the issues facing electric vehicles today, one that gives a new meaning to Faulkner's adage about the past not being dead or even past. For this reason alone it deserves a wide audience among everyone interested in its subject.