Plenty of people will claim that the electric car is the wave of the future. With the recent claims of global warming, the dependence on Middle East oil, and the eventual depletion of the oil reserves, electricity seems to provide necessary answers. It can be generated from clean energy sources which can be located in the country, which can result in zero emissions what so ever. But electric cars are nothing new.
Turn back the clocks to early 20 century, on Millionaire's Row in Cleveland, OH. Of all the cars on Millionaire's Row (a good number, since the residents, as the name suggests, had a bit of money), about half were powered by an internal combustion engine. The other half? Electric. There were also a small number of steam powered cars as well.
These early electric cars were powered by massive brush DC motors and banks of crude (by todays standards) lead acid batteries. The "throttle" was a switch the changed the number of batteries in series, altering the voltage of the string, and consequently the speed of the car. These cars had a range limited to about 10-20 miles, severely limiting their day to day usefulness. Yet despite all of these drawbacks, these cars were considered luxury by the standards of the day.
What puts the luxury in luxury cars? A lot of it has to do with the quality of materials used: leather, exotic woods, etc. If it looks expensive, then it probably is. But more importantly, there are important ride characteristics inherent to luxury cars: they must be smooth, and free of noise, vibration, and harshness. And this is where early electric cars had a distinct advantage over their internal combustion cousins.
Early electric cars are considered crude by today's standards, and gas engines were even worse. Early gasoline engines were very loud and harsh things - very un-luxury qualities. They would vibrate like mad, and required owners to get down and dirty to hand crank their cars to life; not at all an activity the upper class wanted to partake in. Furthermore, electric cars didnt require oil changes, and electricity doesnt smell; you cant say the same for gas, whether it is liquid gasoline form or burned exhaust.
From the engineering side of things, electric cars were (and are) much easier to design than internal combustion. There is one moving part to an electric motor. Think about that: a single moving part. How many parts are in the typical gas fired engine? Hundreds - it is a very complex piece of machinery. The rest of the drivetrain is equally simple. Theres no need for a clutch or torque converter, since electric motors are able to come to complete halt when the car does. Gearbox? What gearbox? No gearbox or transmission necessary.
The truth of the matter is the only drawback of electric cars versus internal combustion was the range limitation of batteries. The reality is that in that day of age, there werent that many places to go that weren't less than 5-10 miles away. Rail existed for intercity and interstate travel.
However, it was ultimately the range limitation that spelled the death toll for the electric car. As cities expanded and cars become more than rich peoples play things, it became necessary for cars to be able to cover enough distance for the local farmer to bring in his produce from the farm to the market.
Its interesting to think of where electric vehicle technology would be today if it had prevailed as the technology of choice early on. Today, we see the same limitation with electric cars of before: range. Only time (and research dollars) will tell if that limitation can be overcome and electricity can take its place as the primary method of propulsion. Until then, internal combustion will rule king.
Final shout out to the Crawford Auto Museum in Cleveland, OH, where all facts in this article were obtained.