The Day the Electric Car Died and What it Means for Today

February 27, 2012 | 8:10 pm
David Friedman
Former contributor

Ok, so electric cars are anything but dead—there are more than 30 models expected from automakers in the next few years—and you don’t have to look far to see the passion they provoke in their owners. But electric cars have had many a brush with death in a battle for the hearts and minds of American drivers that has gone on more than a century.

This ad for the 1912 Cadillac Touring Edition highlighted the advantage of the first electric starter motor.

For example, in 1912 the electric starter motor was first sold, overcoming  a major flaw in gasoline engines. This marked the first “death” of electric cars at the hands of their gasoline competition. GM recently celebrated a centennial of electric starter motor sales, and it made me think: will history repeat itself or can electric cars win out this time?

How the Electric Starter Saved the Gasoline Engine

The modern day dominance of the gasoline-powered car would not be possible without a whole host of inventions and discoveries (the internal combustion engine, large oil resources, the federally funded highway system, etc.), but it would be hard to deny the role played by the starter motor in helping to beat out the competition of the day: battery electric cars and steam-powered cars.

According to Greg Wallace, the director of the General Motors Heritage Center, who was quoted in GM’s release, “Hand cranking was the No. 1 injury risk in those early days of the automobile.” The problem was that hand cranking risked a broken arm or other injuries if you were not able to crank it far enough to start the engine.

The internal combustion engine works by burning a compressed mixture of fuel and air. But, since compressed air is not stored on board the vehicle, you had to do the initial compressing with the hand crank. Once the engine got running, it would compress the air itself as part of its four stroke cycle. But if you did not complete the initial compression yourself, the hand crank would snap back like a spring as the air tried to decompress.

The First Death of Electric Cars

Electric cars, on the other hand, had no such problem. You could just hop in and drive away. Just as today, electric cars were quieter, cleaner, and smoother than gasoline cars. As a result, electric cars were even more popular than gasoline cars for a time.

But, gasoline car developments did not stand still. Electric car production peaked in 1912, the same year that the starter motor was introduced. A decade earlier, the modern oil industry took shape with the discovery of oil in Spindletop, Texas leading to a significant increase in the availability of gasoline. You could also go farther on a tank of gas than on batteries, and when you did run out of gas, you just had to pour more in. Electricity, on the other hand, was not available everywhere as it is today and took time to recharge a battery. When it came to power and durability, the batteries of 1912 paled in comparison to the high-tech marvels in the modern electric car. With all of those factors in play, the starter motor was a straw that helped break the back of electric cars 100 years ago.

The Modern Day Starter Motor, Trying to Keep Up with Electric Cars

Electric cars have been reborn and faded away a few times since that first “death,” and today they are making a strong comeback. The modern market kicked off with the battery-electric Nissan Leaf and the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt. Their combined sales were about 18,000 in 2011, which was not even a full year of sales. That’s double the sales of the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius hybrids in 2000, their first full year of sales.

Of course, electric cars still have hurdles to overcome, and the gasoline engine is not standing still. A modern version of the starter motor is again playing a key role in the evolution of the internal combustion engine in its century old battle with the electric car. GM, through its Buick line, is now selling a technology they call “eAssist.”   That same technology is also called a “belt alternator starter” because it is basically a beefed up alternator that can also operate as a high-power starter motor. In fact, it is so powerful that the engine shuts off at stop lights to avoid wasting fuel and can then turn on before you move your foot from the brake to the gas pedal. It can also provide other functions typically included in hybrids (regenerative braking and helping accelerate the car).

The Century of the Electric Car?

So, will this modern day starter motor yet again beat back the challenge of the electric car? It will certainly help cut down on gasoline use and will be a key technology on the way to more than doubling new car fuel economy by 2025.

But this is 2012, not 1912. Oil is getting more expensive, harder to get, and dirtier. At the same time, we need to cut global warming pollution from cars by 80 percent or more by 2050 to help avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Given the challenges we face, nearly all major stakeholders, including automakers, government agencies, and energy and climate experts agree that a large-scale market for electric-drive vehicles is essential for reaching long-term global warming and oil reduction goals.**

They can’t do it alone, but with the right support and more progress on the technology, electric cars can be an essential part of a revolution that cuts our oil dependence in half in 20 years and nearly eliminates oil use and global warming pollution from the cars we drive by 2050.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

**For example, see Figure 13 in the ARB analysis, 2050 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Analysis: Staff Modeling in Support of the Zero Emission Vehicle Regulation, 2009. Also, see Exhibit 6 from the 2010 McKinsey study, A Portfolio of Power-Trains for Europe, a Fact-Based Analysis: The Role of Battery Electric Vehicles, Plug-In Hybrids and Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles, that included participation from a wide variety of automakers and other industries. And, see the International Energy Agency’s 2011 report, Technology Roadmap Electric and Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles.


Image Credit: General Motors