An EV Question That Ought to be Answered

  • July 21, 2023

Here is a simple question about EVs that deserves an answer: Why is it that they were replaced – by the free market – the first time around?

The question contains the answer. It is because we had a free market the first time around.

Italics to emphasize the past tense.

What happened – back then – was roughly as follows:

The first cars with engines were difficult to start – and cantankerous to operate, once you got them started. They did not have starters. You started them – as by hand. This took a degree of physical strength as well as agility that kept most women (and many men) from being able to start those first cars. Assuming you managed to get the engine running, if you wanted to get the car moving, you had to have mastered the skills of shifting and clutching. This was much more difficult than it is today, because each shift had to be timed to road speed and engine speed because in those early days, gears were not synchronized. You had to know how to double-clutch, which today almost no one who isn’t a professional race car driver knows how to do.

Because all modern manual transmissions are synchronized.

And all the while, you had to keep track of and adjust “spark” – i.e., the ignition timing, which you had to know how to adjust manually, using (typically) a lever mounted on the steering wheel or column.

These early cars were also noisy and smelly and needed constant minor adjustments to be kept in working order. If you have seen old black and white photos of drivers from that era – the very early 1900s – you will see them dressed in special outfits (with goggles, sometimes). Driving – in the early years – was not that far removed from piloting an airplane.

The electric cars of that era were better in many ways – in terms of such attributes as ease of use, for instance. It was not necessary to manually crank the engine to life – and risk breaking your wrist in the process (the crank would sometimes “kick back,” due to the engine’s compression; even people who knew what they were doing regularly got broken bones doing this). There was no engine. You merely turned the car on – via a switch – which was something anyone could do. These early EVs opened driving up to women and older people; to anyone who was able to get in and turn a switch to “on.”

No special skills were needed to drive these early EVs, either – because (as today) they all had automatic transmissions. More accurately, they did not have transmissions at all – because the electric motor turned the wheels directly (as today).

No shifting or clutchwork required.

These early EVs were also less expensive than the gas-powered cars of they competed with because they were simpler to make and so less expensive to sell. The first non-electric cars were much more complicated and largely hand-built, which required skilled craftsmen. This is why the first non-electric cars were luxury cars. Ordinary people generally could not afford to own them – even if they did know how to drive them.

But then something happened. Several things, actually.

The first was that Henry Ford came along. He pared down his Model T to the bare essentials and standardized its parts, so the car could be mass-produced on an assembly line at cost to the purchaser that was half or less what a hand-built car cost. Almost overnight, anyone could afford a car – if it was a Model T Ford.

Soon, there were other affordable cars.

The next thing that came along was the self-starter. Now anyone could start a non-electric car. Just push the (usually floor-mounted) starter button.

These two things took away two of the early EV’s chief selling points. And – just like that – non-electric cars had the advantage. They were almost as easy to use and they cost less. They were also not tethered to a cord. Portable liquid energy – gasoline – made it easy to drive a car like the Model TY practically anywhere, because you could carry the gas you needed to get back from there with you. Gas stations began to pop up – and they were easy to put anywhere, too – because they weren’t tethered to some far-away source of energy. The liquid energy could be trucked to wherever the station was located.

There was also very little wait to get gas when you ran out – because you just poured (at first) or pumped (later on) the gas you needed into the car’s tank.

In a matter of  about ten years after the introduction of the Model T Ford, electric cars were fading fast in the rearview. By the late 1920s, only a handful of companies were still making them; not long after, no one was.

The market decided.

Then along came the government. It has decided – it has decreed – that the market’s decision is to be countermanded. Modern electric vehicles that have the same deficits relative to modern non-electric cars as they did 100 years ago are to be pushed onto the market – while the non-electric cars that most people prefer, because they’re less expensive, aren’t tethered to a cord  and provide much more freedom to drive spontaneously, without laborious planning, are to be pushed off the market.

As obnoxious as this interference with the market is, there’s something worse – which is what the market might have summoned into existence, such as an electric car that’s less expensive than a non-electric car and more practical (as by focusing its design on efficient short-range use than expensive high-speed, long-distance highway driving).

But we’ll probably never know what we’re missing. Though we will know what’s been taken away.

. . .

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