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Thomas Edison to Henry Ford: Forget Electric Cars (Revisited)

[Editor note: This post from February 19th is reprinted and expanded upon given the Obama Administration's release of $2 billion this week for electric car components built in the U.S]

The wisdom of the ages applies to energy. The smartest-guys-in-the-room approach to energy transformation by DOE secretary Stephen Chu, based on a false premise of the unsustainability of hydrocarbon energy, should note such history. The silver bullets that he is looking for have a long, failed history for good reason.

Take for example the electric car, a perennially bad idea for receiving taxpayer subsidies. Below, produced verbatim, is an eye-witness account of a conversation between the father of electricity and the father of the automobile that took place some 113 years ago.

This conversation, dated as August 1896 by the eyewitness Samuel Insull (1859–1938), himself considered the father of the modern electricity industry, is recounted in his autobiography, The Memoirs of Samuel Insull (full cite at end):

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“He asked me no end of details,” to use Mr. Ford’s own language, “and I sketched everything for him; for I have always found that I could convey an idea quicker by sketching than by just describing it.” When the conversation ended, Mr. Edison brought his fist down on the table with a bang, and said:

Young man, that’s the thing; you have it. Keep at it. Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do, either, for they require a boiler and fire. Your car is self-contained—carries its own power plant—no fire, no boiler, no smoke and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it.

Later on Mr. Ford wrote:

That bang on the table was worth worlds to me. No man up to then had given me any encouragement. I had hoped that I was headed right, sometimes I knew that I was, sometimes I only wondered if I was, but here all at once and out of a clear sky the greatest inventive genius in the world had given me a complete approval. The man who knew most about electricity in the world had said that for the purpose my gas motor was better than any electric motor could be—it could go long distances, he said, and there would be stations to supply the cars with hydro-carbon. That was the first time I ever heard this term for liquid fuel. And this at a time when all the electrical engineers took it as an established fact that there could be nothing new and worthwhile that did not run by electricity. It was to be the universal power.

The above meeting between Mr. Henry Ford and Mr. Thomas A. Edison took place at a time when Mr. Ford was engaged in getting ready to build his second car. He has told me on a good many different occasions that the inspiration he received from meeting Mr. Edison had a great deal to do with his having the courage to go ahead with his work in trying to produce a cheap motor car operated by an internal combustion engine.

-  Insull, Samuel. The Memoirs of Samuel Insull. Polo, Ill: Transportation Trails, 1934, 1992, pp. 142–43.

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This is not the end of the story. Edison returned to electricity later in his career to make batteries viable for Ford’s vehicles. Henry Ford, in close friendship with Edison, wanted it badly. But the venture failed as I describe in my forthcoming book, Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies:

Edison got the battery bug later in his career, seeing this field as his way to right the wrongs that others had bestowed on him when General Electric was taken over by others in 1892. The Edison Storage Battery Company, founded in 1900, encountered early setbacks, but Thomas Edison soldiered on and produced a superior nickel-iron-alkaline product by 1909 (Jonnes, 351–52).

But a major hoped-for market, motor vehicles, was using gasoline, not electricity. But it was not for want of effort between two titans and dear friends. In 1914, Henry Ford announced a “Ford Electric” that would sell for $900 and have a range of 100 miles (Mom, p. 255). The brainchild of Thomas Edison himself, the concept—described as “Mr. Ford’s personal project” and “experimental” by Ford Motor Company—never got off the ground. The alkaline battery that penetrated the truck market was rejected by car makers because of its size and an incremental cost of between $200 and $600 per vehicle (Mom, pp. 255–56).

So it was back to 1896 for Ford and Edison despite the latter’s $1.5 million battery effort (Jonnes, 352).

- Jonnes, Jill. Empires of Light: Edison, Telsa, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World. New York: Random House, 2003.

- Mom, Gijs. The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

12 comments

1 Ed Reid { 08.08.09 at 7:59 am }

Mr. Bradley,

You have your scientific blinders on. You need to free yourself from such constraints and focus on the “magic”.

Electricity is the future of vehicles because it doesn’t count, even though it may appear on your electric meter. Electricity (PHEV) can reputedly turn an ordinary gasoline-fueled “upholstered roller skate” into a 150 mpg(gasoline) globe-saving machine. Merely switching from gasoline to E85 in that same PHEV would increase that performance to 1000 mpg(g), while conversion to hydrogen as the fuel would achieve infinite mpg(g).

Now all we need to do is identify the magic which keeps the vehicle warm during a winter commute in Minnesota and cool during a summer commute in Arizona. That will probably take another battery and some more of that magic electricity that doesn’t count.
:-)

2 Donald Hertzmark { 08.08.09 at 9:14 am }

The electric vehicle can only make sense if we are assured that (as Ed Reid notes) (1) the vehicle will never have to run lights, heat or air conditioning in a traffic jam during a snowstorm or on a very hot day; (2) the batteries will take a full charge overnight (just as good as laptops and cell phones?); (3) people will not use the vehicles “inappropriately” , i.e., for longer distance travel; (4) utilities and regulators will change electricity pricing so as to charge (much) lower rates at night; and (5) battery weight approaches the weight of an internal combustion prime mover for vehicles (otherwise the vehicle is all “engine” and no cargo).

The electric vehicle faces a unique combination of technical and institutional barriers that may be overcome someday, but represent a hobbyist approach to transportation at present. For the same reasons that a smart grid cannot be justified (without subsidies) in the presence of dumb pricing, so will electric vehicles need continual subsidy to make up for the higher cost of energy.

Even at current oil prices gasoline or diesel costs about $15/mmbtu at the pump, or about $50-60/unit delivered to the drive wheels. Electricity, at an average retail price of 10 cents/kWh, costs about $30/mmbtu at the plug, and $110-130/unit delivered to the drive wheels. Only giveaway overnight pricing (below 5 cents/kWh at retail) will bring electric vehicles into some economic parity with internal combustion engines, without consideration of higher initial costs and reduced usefulness.

When one looks at the reserve power requirements (and weight) needed to run a car’s parasitic systems (heat, lights, airconditioning, power steering and brakes, it is difficult to make a case for replacing the IC engine with electrics, even with better batteries. Some fundamentals of physics do not change no matter how much we wish them to.

3 Ed Reid { 08.08.09 at 9:22 am }

Mr. Hertzmark,

Surely you are not suggesting that our esteemed politicians could not either amend or repeal the laws of physics and economics, should they become inconvenient. :-)

4 Donald Hertzmark { 08.08.09 at 10:09 am }

Actually, Ed, I remember that there was widespread discussion of perpetual motion machines in Congress in the 1970s, a la the “breeder” reactor, which was touted as “producing more fuel than it consumes.” Just as oil refineries do, but nobody calls them perpetual motion machines. They just transform input fuel into fuel that is consumed in the process and fuel that is sold to others. Such facts of physics did little to quell the enthusiasm.

And then there was the recent flurry of hydrogen economy mania, another perpetual motion machine concept that was going to use “unlimited” supplies of electricity from wind and solar to strip the hydrogen out of water. Fortunately, the US Patent Office, unlike Congress, has a couple of hard heads that are dedicated to the review of all applications for perpetual motion patents.

One piece of information that we really need to keep out of the hands of our politicians is the volumetric gain from cracking heavy molecules in oil refining. Once they find out that you can get 110 barrels of product for 100 barrels of input, then we may be looking at a crash program to create breeder diesels.

5 Denny { 08.09.09 at 12:19 am }

Mr. Hertzmark, I was wondering if you have heard of this Company! http://www.altairnano.com/profiles/investor/fullpage.asp?f=1&BzID=546&to=cp&Nav=0&LangID=1&s=0&ID=10724
Sounds promising but do they perform as promised by this Company??? Research in electrical storage, compact Nuclear Sources and more efficient IC engines would be a smart investment by our Private Sector. Don’t you think?

6 Timothy Birdnow { 08.10.09 at 8:40 am }

Dear Mr. Hertzmark,

” I remember that there was widespread discussion of perpetual motion machines in Congress ”

The problem is that we aren`t accepting that a new era has dawned. We must simply convince the demons of thermodynamics to sit at the gate and let all the fast-moving particles through when we flip the switch; no big deal! :) I`m sure Obama can convince them to do that; perhaps hold a Maxwellian demon summit or somesuch and say “pretty please!”

Here is a Wikipedia article listing all of those wonderful PMM`s through history http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_perpetual_motion_machines

Now, if those sinister oil companies would simply stop repressing them all…

Interestingly enough, I have uncovered a way to greatly increase the electric car`s efficiency. There is an adapter that can be attached to the front end that works quite well. It requires certain organic compounds to operate, but it is clearly off the shelf technology. The only problem I have yet to correct is that it produces certain undesirable wastes, and must sometimes be whipped when it stops to graze on the more succulent shoots of grass.

7 Donald Hertzmark { 08.10.09 at 9:33 am }

Denny,
Interesting concept, if it bears fruit. Hybrid gas-electric vehicles have a long history in the military. For some civilian uses, such as buses that return to a central garage each night (and can recharge on “nighttime” rates) there may be some upside. From an urban pollution perspective a small IC engine running at a constant speed feeding an electric motor would be preferable to belching soot when the engine is under full load. Perhaps a hybrid bus with a better battery can reach a reasonable engine:cargo ratio, one that will continue to elude electric-only options for quite some time.

Compressed natural gas vehicles already make some sense for commercial vehicles that return to a central garage each night to take advantage of lower cost refilling than is available to home users, and further experimentation with hybrids may prove fruitful in this direction. The enemy of commercial adoption for electric systems will remain weight, range, and peak capabilities – how would you like to be on a city bus on a hot day with the airconditioning turned off to save battery power to enable the bus to complete the route and get back to the garage for a recharge?

8 Mark Krebs { 08.10.09 at 11:32 am }

You guys are all overlooking all the new jobs that will be created for color coding electrons so only the “green” ones get through.

9 Ed Sline { 10.18.10 at 10:03 am }

Wow, what a website for negativists, and pessimists. Please sit here, and discuss why all of these new ideas are doomed to failure, while the doers and movers create the world of tomorrow.

10 Ed Sline { 10.18.10 at 10:06 am }

Oh, I missed the “Free Market” banner at the top of the site. Had I noticed, I wouldn’t have bothered leaving a comment on a site championing the corporate status quo.

11 rbradley { 10.18.10 at 2:09 pm }

Ed:

Not fair at all. Government intervention is all about political capitalism, special government favor at the expense of the average consumer that is often sponsored by business groups.

Please visit my website http://www.politicalcapitalism.org to find out more. And how about all of the Enron posts at MasterResource?

Enron’s energy policy is also Obama’s.

It is this status quo that must be challenged.

12 Errors of Enchantment » The Electric Vehicle Mirage { 11.11.11 at 5:17 pm }

[...] Bradley noted in his presentation to the Rio Grande Foundation audience yesterday, Henry Ford hoped to collaborate with Thomas Edison to build an electric car nearly 100 years [...]

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