Battery electric cars are all the rage, but they are hardly new. When the idea of making an automobile first came along, various ways were tried to make it move forward under its own power. Before 1908, 38% of all cars on the road were electric. Steam cars were even more popular, accounting for 40% of vehicles. The gasoline engine powered only 22% of the total.
Of course, at that time, society was very different. People only expected to travel a few miles during a typical day — about as far as they could go on horseback. Electric cars were heavy and slow, but they were at least as fast as a horse and didn’t leave droppings behind them for someone else to clean up. Since no one had to commute to work from the suburbs to get to work on time, waiting for the boiler on a steam car to make steam wasn’t much of a problem, either.
“If someone in the year 1900 had to bet on the outcome of the battle between external steam combustion, internal gasoline combustion, and electricity as the future standard for powering cars, they’d have probably put their money on electricity,” Tim Urban writes on his whimsical blog, Wait But Why?
In 1908, however, Henry Ford showed the world how to build an inexpensive, reliable car with a gasoline engine and the rest, as they say, is history. The internal combustion engine made cars that were faster and could drive longer distances. People fell in love with the newfangled devices and there was no turning back.
Now, of course, the electric car is back in vogue, thanks to modern batteries that are light years more sophisticated than the clunky lead acid batteries of a century ago. Will they transform transportation, or is there another Henry Ford out there somewhere getting ready to leapfrog the electrics once again with a new technology no one has even thought of yet?