There is a great tendency to regard electric vehicles as a relatively new idea, and we are reminded by the 2006 Sony documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? (with Martin Sheen, Tom Hanks, and Mel Gibson) that when electric vehicles appeared in California in 1996, it was General Motors who took them off the road and shredded them. The present batch of vehicles from the mainstream manufacturers – plus the like of Tesla – are now the replacements for those dreadful corporate decisions that were made to protect the oil industry.
Those of us brought up in the 1960s in the UK will remember electric vehicles rather differently: as electric milk floats, replacing the milkman’s horse and cart. To a sophisticated US audience those milk floats were probably first experienced in the TV thriller series The Avengers (with the perfect couple of Patrick MacNee and Diana Rigg, not the Marvel Comics Avengers of 1963 or the super humans/aliens movie of 2012) where they inevitably showed up in conjunction with somebody’s death in a woefuly tailored suit.
If you go back to the early days of the automobile, however, the development of the electric vehicle is right up there with steam-powered cars. Both were very popular because the early internal-combustion engine vehicles were people unfriendly: external cranking injured users and they were both smelly and dirty. Until the integrated starter was invented (in 1911 Charles Kettering of DELCO – Dayton Engineering Labs Co – filed US Patent 1,150,523; Cadillac fitted a Kettering starter in 1912 although companies like Ford persevered with hand cranking until 1919) steam and electric ruled the roost. Indeed, despite the claim for the magnificent 1938 A4 locomotive, Mallard, designed by Sir Nigel Greeley, to have achieved 126 mph as the “world speed record for steam traction,” that accolade really belongs to the Stanley-Steamer Rocket" which Fred Marriott drove on Ormond Beach (just North of Daytona Beach) in 1906 to 127.7 mph. (Marriott tried to beat his own record the year after but hit a hole and the car flew into two parts.) The biggest problems with the steam vehicles were the amount of time needed to build up a good head of steam in the boiler – often thirty minutes or more – and the nasty habit they had of blowing up if not carefully tended.
On the electric side a model car was put together by a Hungarian, Anyos Jedlik, in 1828 while a Scots inventor, Robert Anderson, built what was probably the first full-sized electric vehicle, based on a phaeton, sometime between 1832 and 1839. In 1897, a 17-year-old Earle Anthony from Los Angeles built himself a buggy made of cherry wood with chain drives to the rear wheels and an electric motor powered by a lead-acid battery. Steering was by use of a tiller, conventional at the time and a carry-on from sailing ships. Although his buggy was arguably the first commercially-manufactured electric car, Anthony later became California’s leading distributor of Packard gas-powered automobiles.
The cherry wood buggy was followed by vehicles made by Waverley, Columbia, and Baker: all were popular through about 1910 while the most financially successful was a fleet of taxis in New York City in 1897 built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia. That success did not hold for the first production hybrid gas-electric car built by the Woods Motor Vehicle Company of Chicago in 1916; even then, it was too expensive…
All these later cars were powered by lead-acid cells and all suffered the big problem that EVs exhibit today: endurance. Various attempts were made to overcome this limitation including exchange battery programs at service stations but it wasn’t until 1916 that there were enough homes wired for electricity that self-charging became practical, and by then the gas-powered vehicles were coming into their own.
Thomas Edison was, of course, in the middle of battery solutions and he developed the nickel-iron (NiFe) rechargeable battery. Edison was heavily into sales gimmicks for his technology, including the electrocution of animals with ac to show how unsafe it was compared to his beloved dc, culminating in the awful destruction of Topsy the elephant at Luna Park Zoo in 1903. To publicize the reliability of his new ‘alkaline storage’ battery technology, he equipped a Bailey electric car with one and it was sent on a 1000 mile endurance run in 1910. There is little information about the number of batteries used in the trip but the route did “include hills.”
NiFe has a lot going for it with both metals being available in abundance and a potassium hydroxide (KOH, caustic potash) electrolyte that, while corrosive (and potentially explosive), is available in huge quantities. The nominal cell voltage is 1.45 V with an energy/weight value of about 50 W.hr.kg-1. Its biggest asset is its life; some batteries have been shown to have lives exceeding forty years and there is a car (named Elizabeth) on display in the Royal BC Museum (Victoria, BC) that still has an operational battery after one hundred years.
Because of this longevity and its ability to withstand overcharge and short-circuit abuse it has been well used as a back-up power source and was designed into mining lamps, railroad signaling, submarines, and solar systems, but production stopped in North America in 1972, and when Exide Corporation bought the technology from the Edison Storage Battery company in 1975 all the processes were shelved, presumably to protect their lead-acid product lines.
Now, there is a possible revival of the technology in a modern form. Researchers at Stanford University have published a paper in the journal Nature Communications detailing a 1 V NiFe battery that employs carbon nanotubes and graphene hybrid materials as electrode materials.
The battery exhibits extremely fast charging and discharging rates (over 1000 times faster than Edison’s battery construction) and can deliver more than twice the power/weight (120 W.hr.kg-1).
The idea that such a cell/battery could be developed to replace the heavy metal batteries of today – with all the attendant environmental nightmare scenarios that go with them – is extremely welcome news. The research is a long way from that stage with the prototype just able to power a flashlight but the technology should be scalable to much more useful levels. The very fast charging times, for example, should make them extremely attractive to emergency and military uses.
Edison would be delighted to see dc making such progress. If he was around today, he would probably be intent on remaking the Sony documentary to show that ac actually killed the electric car: "Westinghoused" is probably the term he would use.