Electric Vehicles: “Plugging in” Where Our Past Meets the Future
You might think you are an early adopter if you drive an electric vehicle, but you are more than 150 years late to the game. The world’s first electric vehicle (EV) was built in 1832 by the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson, and the first with a rechargeable lead-acid storage battery was built in 1859 by the French physicist Gaston Planté. New York City had electric taxis hitting their streets as early as 1897. By the turn of the 20th century, 28 percent of all the vehicles produced in the US were powered by electricity, and Thomas Edison (pictured above, right), believing that all the cars of the future would run on electricity, dedicated roughly ten years of his life trying to create a long-lasting battery that would be powerful enough for commercial use.
Then Henry Ford introduced the gas-powered Model T in 1908 and the rest, as they say, is history. That roar in the 1920s could have been the sound of the gas-powered automobile prevailing – the electric car was no longer in demand.
The electric vehicle re-emerged in 1966 with early concern over the impact of petroleum-based transportation. Nascent environmental awareness coupled with the spike in oil prices experienced in the 70s led to continued interest in EVs and the funding of their research and development for decades.
But it was not until 1997, with the release of the Toyota Prius hybrid (pictured below), that commercial success was achieved and an EV mass-produced.
The more recent resurgence of electric vehicle activity, with gasoline prices again on the rise and environmental policies taking effect world-wide, has encouraged many automotive manufacturers, in North America, Europe and Asia, to launch commercial models into the market.
Electric vehicles are thus not a new concept, but they continue to face some difficult challenges that have prevented them from becoming ubiquitous.
First, battery life and the limit this puts on the distance an EV can travel was an issue in the past and remains a concern today. While the technology has improved (the Chevy Volt has a range of 40 miles on a single charge, Nissan’s new LEAF model (pictured below) claims to have a 100-mile range, and Tesla’s Roadster, an astounding 200-mile range), it still imposes a radius of accessibility around the consumer’s residence and establishes a boundary of potential inconvenience. Publicly-accessible charging stations and battery-swapping stations are ways to remove these boundaries, but these require an investment into electric vehicle infrastructure. The widespread and easy availability of gasoline was one of the main contributing factors to the demise of the early electric vehicles, and the current lack of EV infrastructure imposes a major hurdle to their adoption today.
A second barrier has been their cost premium over gas-powered automobiles. EV sticker prices can run thousands of dollars above comparable gas-powered automobiles, and EV owners face additional costs associated with the purchase, installation and maintenance of charging equipment. On the other hand, EV owners can save money on oil changes that are required much less frequently with EV than with gas-powered cars, and tax credits promise to offset some of the higher costs of electric vehicles.
The United States will benefit greatly from creating national policies, as have many other countries–such as Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, United Kingdom, Japan, and others—which have incentivized EV use through purchase subsidies and publicly funded charging stations.
Nonetheless, the promise of EVs is evident. The cost of charging a battery using renewable energy is less than a fill-up from a gasoline pump, and in the long run conversion to electric vehicles will reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Above all, the near-zero emissions of EVs will immediately help meet our global goals for carbon reduction.
Locally, the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) has formed an “e-Mobility” working group to address the issue of local EV infrastructure, and is working to develop a comprehensive LA County Electric Vehicle Deployment Community Blueprint to catalyze and support LA County’s EV cluster. Perhaps Los Angeles will soon realize the vision that began with Thomas Edison over a century ago…
Contributed by:Shannon Sedgwick Economic and Policy Consulting Department Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC)
Find more information about the effort to promote EVs in Southern California at SoCalEV or contact JoAnne Golden, Manager of Public Policy, Strategic Initiatives (T: 213.236.4837) with the LAEDC to get involved with the “e-Mobility” working group.