In his book Clearing the air, Tim Smedley reminds us of the terrible errors we made in abandoning electric vehicles in the early 20th century. Smedley’s focus was on air pollution, and how the problem was exacerbated, and in fact largely caused, by emissions from car exhausts in increasingly car-dependent cities like Beijing, Delhi, Los Angeles and London. In the process he briefly mentioned the electric tram systems that were scrapped in so many cities worldwide in favour of the infernal combustion engine. It’s a story I’ve heard before of course, but it really is worth taking a deeper dive into the mess of mistakes we made back then, and the lessons we need to learn.
A major lesson, unsurprisingly, is to be suspicious of vested interests. Today, the fossil fuel industry is still active in denying the facts about global warming and minimising the impact of air pollution on our health. Solar and wind power, and the rise of the EV industry – which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in Australia – are still subject to ridiculous attacks by the heavily subsidised fossil fuel giants, though at least their employees don’t go around smashing wind turbines and solar panels. The website Car and Driver tells a ‘funny story’ about the very earliest days of EVs:
… Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, built a prototype electric locomotive in 1837. A bigger, better version, demonstrated in 1841, could go 1.5 miles at 4 mph towing six tons. Then it needed new batteries. This impressive performance so alarmed railway workers (who saw it as a threat to their jobs tending steam engines) that they destroyed Davidson’s devil machine, which he’d named Galvani.
If only this achievement by Davidson, before the days of rechargeable batteries, had been greeted with more excitement and wonder. But by the time rechargeable batteries were introduced in the 1860s, steam locomotives were an established and indeed revolutionary form of transport. They began to be challenged, though, in the 1880s and 90s as battery technology, and other features such as lightweight construction materials and pneumatic tyres, started to make electric transport a more promising investment. What followed, of course, with the development of and continual improvements to the internal combustion engine in the 1870s and 80s, first using gas and then petrol – the 1870s into the 90s and beyond was a period of intense innovation for vehicular transport – was a serious and nasty battle for control of the future of private road transport. Electricity wasn’t widely available in the early twentieth century, but rich industrialists were able to create a network of filling stations, which, combined with the wider availability of cheap oil, and the mass production and marketing capabilities of industrialists like Henry Ford – who had earlier considered electric vehicles the best future option – made petrol-driven vehicles the eventual winner, in the short term. Of course, little thought was given in those days to fuel emissions. A US website describes a likely turning point:
… it was Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T that dealt a blow to the electric car. Introduced in 1908, the Model T made gasoline [petrol]-powered cars widely available and affordable. By 1912, the gasoline car cost only $650, while an electric roadster sold for $1,750. That same year, Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, eliminating the need for the hand crank and giving rise to more gasoline-powered vehicle sales.
Electrically-powered vehicles quickly became ‘quaint’ and unfashionable, leading to to the trashing of electric trams worldwide.
The high point of the internal combustion engine may not have arrived yet, as numbers continue to climb. Some appear to be addicted to the noise they make (I hear them roaring by nearly every night!). But surely their days are numbered. What shocks me, frankly, is how slow the public is to abandon them, when the fossil fuel industry is so clearly in retreat, and when EVs are becoming so ‘cool’. Of course conservative governments spend a fortune in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry – Australia’s government provided over $10 billion in the 2020-21 financial year, and the industry in its turn has given very generously to the government (over $1.5 million in FY2020, according to the Market Forces website).
But Australia is an outlier, with one of the worst climate policies in the WEIRD world. There will be a federal election here soon, and a change of government is very much on the cards, but the current labor opposition appears afraid to unveil a climate policy before the election. The move towards electrification of vehicles in many European countries, in China and elsewhere, will eventually have a knock-on effect here, but the immediate future doesn’t look promising. EV sales have risen markedly in the past twelve months, but from a very low base, with battery and hybrids rising to 1.95% of market share – still a paltry amount (compare Norway with 54% EVs in 2020). Interestingly, Japan is another WEIRD country that is lagging behind. China continues to be the world leader in terms of sheer numbers.
The countries that will lead the field of course, will be those that invest in infrastructure for the transition. Our current government announced an infrastructure plan at the beginning of the year, but with little detail. There are issues, for example, about the type of charging infrastructure to fund, though fast-charging DC seems most likely.
In general, I’ve become pessimistic about Australians switching en masse to EVs over the next ten years or so – I’ve read too many ‘just around the corner’ articles with too little actual change in the past five years. But perhaps a new government with a solid, detailed plan will emerge in the near future, leading to a burst of new investment….
Tim Smedley, Clearing the air, 2019