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The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age

Author(s):Mom, Gijs
Reviewer(s):Hultén, Staffan H

Published by EH.NET (March 2007)

Gijs Mom, The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. xiii + 423 pp. $55 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8018-7138-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Staffan Hult?n, Department of Marketing and Strategy, Stockholm School of Economics.

The early history of the automobile and the battle between electric, steam-powered and gasoline cars has resulted in numerous interesting and thought-provoking articles and books. Among this research have been impressive case studies ? for example, Schallenberg’s book on the evolution of battery technology, Kirsch’s thesis on the electric car and Scharff’s book on gender and the early evolution of the car ? of how social and economic factors intervene in the technological selection process. Another type of research has been much more speculative. We have on the one hand the often repeated claim by Arthur that steam power, and maybe even electric power, could have become the dominating power source for the automobile and on the other hand Leibowitz and Margolis’s total rejection of such a possibility. Gijs Mom’s book, The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age, is an impressive empirical study that helps resolve this debate.

The author has brought together a hitherto unknown collection of cases of electric vehicle usage from 1881 to 1925 and he also gives a sketchy overview of the subsequent evolution of electric cars to the 1970s. Reading the book, I was struck with how many chances and how much support the electric vehicles got over time. There occurred, in all probability, not a selection failure as suggested by Kirsch on EH.Net in 1996: “The failure of the EVC, I argue, was not pre-ordained by its choice of technology. Rather … it MIGHT HAVE SUCCEEDED under different circumstances, and if it had, it might have enrolled a host of other supporting institutions (electric utilities, the insurance underwriters, fleet vehicles owners, battery exchange providers [in place of gas stations], etc.).” Mom’s study shows that more than one actor tried to remedy a perceived malfunctioning market process and give electric power preferential treatment. In addition to the fairly well-known premature investments in electric taxi-cab fleets at the end of the nineteenth century in the U.S., Mom adds example after example where electric cars were given unfair advantages by local authorities. In German cities like Bremen and Hamburg gasoline taxicabs were banned by local authorities around 1910 to the benefit of electric taxicabs. In Berlin a prospective gasoline taxicab owner had in 1911 to hand in ten horse-cab licenses while a few years later a license for an electric taxicab only demanded two horse-cab licenses.

Mom’s book is not an easy read. It is packed with too much detail brought together in an implicit unfolding story, that when it ends leaves more questions than answers. One example is Mom’s treatment of the development of the taxicab market in Chapter 4. He presents different case studies with different levels of analysis and different types of data ? in Paris he presents the evolution of the whole market, in Bremen and Hamburg stories about taxicab firms and in Holland detailed statistical data about revenues and daily route length ? which makes it extremely difficult to compare the material. It comes as no surprise that his conclusions from the chapter are vague, general and not argued before. Take, for example, the conclusion on page 172: “Why then could the electric car not extend its position (Berlin) or maintain it (Bremen, Hamburg and Amsterdam)? Was it not the ideal ‘crisis car’ and was it not cheaper to maintain in a large fleet than a gasoline cab? The conclusion can only be that the gasoline cab had an important extra function, which widened its potential field of application considerably: that of the (paid) touring trip outside the city as well as the higher speed that accompanied it.” The touring idea is not detailed city by city in the chapter. We have no idea based on the material if this was the reason for the electric cab failure. The hint that electrics were cheaper is far from conclusive and my impression is that the author uses different yardsticks when comparing electric with gasoline taxicabs. He notes that you “only” got 260 effective days of operation with a gasoline car (p. 140), but when the electric cabs reached 213 operating days per car in 1907 “nothing seemed to stand in the way of a functional taxicab fleet” (p. 145). My guess would be that simple economics and good management preferred “only” 260 days before an increase to 213 days. Another quirky thing in this chapter is the launch of an extremely powerful conclusion without any empirical support before the chapter starts: “Largely neglected by automotive historiography, it was under the guise of the taxicab that gasoline engine propulsion entered into the urban application field and it was in this field that the gasoline vehicle learned to become ‘civilized’ and throw off its image of unreliability” (p. 131). This may be true but nothing in the chapter casts light on why this is the case. No comparative data of different modes of gasoline car use is analyzed, and no material on different gasoline cars is presented. It may be the case that “automotive historiography” has neglected this, but it shares this neglect with Mom himself. To pretend to know is not the same as to know.

Maybe it is Mom’s appetite for empirical knowledge that accounts for errors like the above, but this fault is at the same time one of the merits of the book. I mentioned earlier his documentation of seldom treated case material. In Chapter 5 and 6 he documents skillfully how electric motors were used in commercial vehicles and trucks. Electric buses were well diffused in Europe, often using a contact wire. To this case Mom adds numerous others and in particular the German experience with electric fire engines. The electric propulsion of these vehicles too a high extent depended on the entrepreneurial fire chief Maximilian Reichel. Here the story ends with the First World War, and the advantages of gasoline engines over electric motors on the battle field.

Mom concludes with two appendices (one is a note on method) that outline a theoretical framework. This is an unusual way of knowledge construction, as this section makes explicit what has been implicit in the analysis in the different cases. More interesting is his speculative epilogue that looks at different possible “failure factors”: socio-cultural or gender, the battery (and the tire), infrastructure, and competing technologies. For reasons not clarified in the text, the discussion of the failure factors builds on new material and speculations.

On the question of socio-cultural aspects he agrees with Schiffer and Scharff on gender and cars, claiming that “both approaches contain elements that match the conclusions of this study” (p. 278), Regardless of this he takes issue with them and belittles their research. “Added to the complete lack of data, these shortcomings have led to highly speculative analyses that easily assume the character of a religious dispute” (ibid). To prove his point, he presents some new anecdotal evidence, a necessity since this hasn’t been treated in the book. For example an advertisement entitled “The Gentleman’s Town Car” is pretended to support the claim that: “Too late did the electric industry realize its pitfalls of focusing on women as a marketing strategy” (p. 283).

The battery and the tire problems draw extensively on material presented earlier in the book. In the treatment of these factors Mom wants both to accept them as failure factors and reject them as failure factors. The limited range which blocked touring ? critical according to himself in the success of the gasoline taxicab ? is no longer critical because: “… the decisive battle was fought in the city, on territory where the advantages of electric propulsion were undeniable.” He also notes that when gasoline cars were forbidden to compete electric cars flourished (p. 285-86). Such thought processes certainly pave the way for another explanation. “So, if the second-generation battery has indeed contributed to the ‘failure’ of the electric car, … it was due to its antimachine character, which did not fit in the dominant technical culture and certainly not in the emerging culture of the gasoline car” (p. 288).

Infrastructure as a failure factor gives Mom plenty of problems. Infrastructural need seems to be an important criterion for judging the capacity of a car to develop (p. 291). We also get the information that many believe that the expansion of the road networks before and after the First World War were crucial for the success of the automobile (p. 292). But, this is too simple for Mom. The relationship is not at all clear-cut. It was trucks that needed better roads, not cars. The electric car didn’t lose the battle because of benefiting less from inter-city roads.

Finally on the issue on how the technology of electric vehicles interacted with the technology of gasoline cars Mom launches the idea that gasoline cars gained more from this interaction than electric cars. It is impossible to tell if this is a correct assessment. He points at different technology transfers but his list is far from conclusive and convincing. He presents a picture in which the gasoline car internalized all the advantages of the electric car without asking himself why the electric car entrepreneurs didn’t retaliate by internalizing all the advantages of the gasoline car.

Despite all its pitfalls, Mom’s book leaves very little to fantasize about for electric vehicle enthusiasts. There was no missed opportunity in the early days of the automobile, the electric vehicle disappeared from most usage areas because at the time and given existing preferences it represented an inferior technology to the gasoline car. It is possible that a new take on the electric vehicle question could include co-evolutionary aspects of automobile development. One critical issue would be whether most of a rapidly advancing capitalistic society’s mobility needs could have been met with another mix of modes of transport. One possible solution could have been more trains and buses for longer distances and electric vehicles for shorter distances. What consumers give up in such a transport system is privacy and flexibility ? things that are highly valued by many consumers.

Staffan Hult?n is Associate Professor in the Department of Marketing and Strategy at the Stockholm School of Economics. His recent publications include “Historical School and Institutionalism,” Journal of Economic Studies, 2005; “Predatory Bidding in Competitive Tenders: A Swedish Case Study,” European Journal of Law and Economics, 2006 (with Gunnar Alexandersson) and “High and Low Bids in Tenders: Strategic Pricing and Other Bidding Behaviour in Public Tenders of Passenger Railway Services,” Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, in press (with Gunnar Alexandersson).

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII