The 100-Year Bad Idea

Thursday, 14 Feb 2013 07:38 AM

By Neal Asbury

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Intuitively, the electric car makes all kinds of sense. It reduces our dependence on foreign oil, cuts pollution and reduces street noise. So why hasn’t America embraced the electric car?

For the answer, we have to go back more than 100 years when American visionaries saw promise in an electric vehicle.

According to About.com’s coverage of inventors, the first electric vehicle in the United States was invented in 1835 by Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith from Brandon, Vt. He built a small-scale electric car that used the first American-built DC (direct current) electric motor, which he also invented.

The car design went nowhere until it was picked up again in 1897, when the first commercial elective vehicle application was established as a fleet of New York City taxis built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Co. of Philadelphia.

Ironically, a battery-powered taxi was introduced in New York last week. Like anything else in New York, it has been embraced and reviled by various constituents.

In 1902, the Woods Motor Vehicle Co. of Chicago built an electric car that had a range of 18 miles, a top speed of 14 mph and cost $2,000.

“Electric vehicles had many advantages over their competitors in the early 1900s. They did not have the vibration, smell, and noise associated with gasoline cars. Changing gears on gasoline cars was the most difficult part of driving, while electric vehicles did not require gear changes. While steam-powered cars also had no gear shifting, they suffered from long start-up times of up to 45 minutes on cold mornings,” according to About.com.

“While basic electric cars cost under $1,000, most early electric vehicles were ornate, massive carriages designed for the upper class. They had fancy interiors, with expensive materials, and averaged $3,000 by 1910. Electric vehicles enjoyed success into the 1920s with production peaking in 1912.”

So fast forward to today’s all electric vehicle. What are its challenges? The same as in the 1920s: too expensive, a limited driving range and a lack of interest by the American consumer. The more you drive today’s electric car, the more the battery charge begins to deplete, and there is a vast lack of charging stations.

But the big difference between today and the 1920s is that the American government back then didn’t subsidize the manufacture of electric vehicles and didn’t try to cram them down the throats of uninterested American drivers.

American drivers have turned their backs on the electric vehicle, and even the “Electric Car Chief Cheerleader,” President Barack Obama, has backed away from his promise that there will be 1 million electric cars on U.S. roads by 2015, for which he has allocated $5 billion of taxpayer money.

Just over 31,000 battery-powered and plug-in electric vehicles were sold during 2012, a paltry 0.28 percent of all vehicles sold.

If misery loves company, Nissan, with French partner Renault, has committed $5 billion for development and manufacture of electric vehicles s and batteries. Toyota has spent an estimated $10 billion or more over the past 16 years to develop, build and market an ever-expanding range of hybrids, led by the popular and now profitable Prius.

The electric vehicle is in trouble. In fact, Japan's two largest automakers suggest that the electric car, after more than 100 years of development and several brief revivals, is being relegated to the back burner. In its place is the advent of hydrogen-powered cars, being designed by car companies in Asia, Europe and North America.

There’s a lesson here that has escaped the Obama administration: the government’s job is not to force its will on its citizens. This applies to the electric car as well as healthcare and gun ownership.

What this government should be doing is using every hour of the day to help reduce unemployment. Nothing is more important and not a single American would disagree with this priority.

Ironically, electric cars and unemployment were both issues during the 1920s. Except the administration recognized that while nobody wanted an electric car, everybody wanted a job.

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