A Free-Market Energy Blog

Electric Vehicles: Old Market Competitor

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- July 14, 2020

“No electric car since 1902, regardless of battery or drive train, had been able to compete effectively against its contemporary internal combustion counterpart.” (– David Kirsch, The Electric Vehicle and The Burden of History. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2000, p. 203.)

“When government tries to pick losers and winners, it typically picks losers. Why? Because in a free market, consumers pick winners to leave the losers for government.” (- Robert Bradley, Jr. Electric Car Verdict: Another Government-Subsidized Bust, September 26, 2012.

How many times has it been stated that electric vehicles are ” a new technology.” Such was the thesis of a 2017 Think Progress article, “A Koch Front Group is Putting out Misleading Attack Ads on Electric Vehicles.”

If only journalists such as Samantha Page knew energy history. If they did, they would be much more skeptical of the new next thing, particularly that which is government-enabled and -dependent.

Many of the government-subsidized energy initiatives advertised as new are, in fact, old. For example, rooftop solar and electricity generating wind turbines have a 20th-century history, as told in The Economic Fall and Political Rise of Renewable Energy.

Electric vehicles (EVs) were commonplace in the United States in the first quarter of the 20th century as documented in David Kirsch’s The Electric Vehicle and The Burden of History (2000).

“In the late 1890s, at the dawn of the automobile era, steam, gasoline, and electric cars all competed to become the dominant automotive technology,” he states (p. 4). “By the early 1900s, the battle was over, and internal combustion was poised to become the prime mover of the twentieth century.”

Some more early history. When a young Henry Ford asked Thomas Edison (in 1896) whether he should design a car with an electric battery or with an internal combustion engine (burning gasoline), Edison responded:

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.

Ford later appreciatively wrote:

That bang on the table was worth worlds to me…. 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.

And years later, the two men re-learned the same lesson in their failed experiment to produce an “Electric Ford.”

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.

But a major hoped-for market, motor vehicles, was using gasoline, not electricity. 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.

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.

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


Government policies have put EVs back into the market—for the elite. There are federal write-offs of $7,500 per vehicle and 30 percent for EV refueling stations. Car dealers use EV credits to average down regular SUVs to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards too.

Rival technologies have competed for many decades and now for over a century when it comes to electric vs. fossil-fuel transportation. Removing subsidies, it is not hard to identify the winner.

If history is a guide, and if markets are allowed to prevail over the heavy hand of government, place your bet on what Thomas Edison intuited and then found out the hard way more than a century ago.

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