Ed. Note: The current government-led drive for battery electric vehicles (EVs) can be informed by history. In the 1890s through about 1920, electric vehicles went from market dominance to market rejection, outcompeted by the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine. This post, and others at MasterResource (here and here), revisit the early history of the electric vehicle.
Electricity was the early front runner for horseless carriages, and the great man of electric utilities, Samuel Insull, got out in front. In 1898, Chicago Edison opened battery-charging stations and offered promotional rates to jumpstart this market. “Load-leveling” rates meant cheap off-peak charging at wholesale to serve this embryonic market.
In 1899, Insull became president of the $25 million Illinois Electrical Vehicle Transportation Company, the western branch of the Columbia Automobile Company of New York, to market electric cabs and carriages in Chicago. The plan was to have 1,000 taxis and rental vehicles profitably operating in the city, which as a byproduct would create a steady, off-peak “typical long-hour load” for Commonwealth Edison—far better than business that might add to the peak. As compared to storing power itself, Commonwealth Edison could “shift the charge and discharge losses of about 20 to 30 percent to the customer, but also battery maintenance” to customers.
But electric vehicles as a “complement” to public transportation—such as (electric) cab rides for $0.15 from the home to the streetcar stop—would prove too optimistic. Profits were scarce, and Insull used the occasion of a March 1901 drivers’ strike to liquidate Illinois Electrical.
Other cities held on a little longer, but competition from horse-drawn vehicles and the emerging gasoline-powered car proved too much in view of the stubborn limits to battery technology. Indeed, the lead acid battery, which an 1898 issue of Electrical World complained “will sputter, fume, give out on the road, leak, buckle, disintegrate, corrode, short-circuit and do many other undesirable things under the severe pressure of automobile work,” would never achieve the needed breakthroughs.
In 1900, Insull cofounded the Automobile Club of Chicago to sell the public on the new mode of transportation—and deal with the politics of a new entrant. The year before, for example, the city’s South Park Board prohibited motor vehicles from using the boulevards and parks, leaving bicycles and horse carriages. This “unprogressive” ban would be overturned by Chicago’s mayor.
Insull, “propelled by the vision of unified electric light, traction, and power distribution,” was not done yet with electric vehicles. In 1903, Insull got involved with an electric-car maker, Walker Vehicle Company, a relationship that would continue into the 1920s despite limited success.
Outside of short-haul delivery trucks, this market for electricity would not take hold despite ongoing efforts by Insull and Chicago Edison. The reason was Henry Ford’s gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine. Thomas Edison predicted as much in a conversation with Ford at the AEIC annual meeting in 1896, preserved for history by Samuel Insull himself. Edison labored to make batteries more economical for the transportation market, but the problem of weight/energy-density prevented both a Ford Electric market and a way to help meet peak load.
The post is an excerpt from Robert L. Bradley Jr., Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies (Scrivener Publishing and John Wiley & Sons, 2011), pp. 90–91.