HASfter the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine today reveals the harshness of the transformations that await societies accustomed to material abundance. Consumers balk at rising energy or food prices, and governments are reduced to expedients that often worsen the ecological problem and increase the cost of future adaptations. In such circumstances, the call for individual efforts is as ubiquitous as it is misplaced. A historical example provides further proof of this: that of the emergence of the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions and urban pollution, the internal combustion engine.
As Josef Taalbi and Hana Nielsen point out in a recent article (“The Role of Energy Infrastructure in Shaping Early Adoption of Electric and Gasoline Cars”, NatureEnergyOctober 7, 2021), the electric motor was developed alongside the combustion engine, at the very end of the 19th century.e century, to compete with and replace a steam engine considered unsafe for individual use. After the invention of the rechargeable lead-acid battery by Gaston Planté in 1859, and its successive improvements, electric vehicles had the appeal of modernity (in 1937, again, Raoul Dufy was able to paint without ridicule The Electricity Fairy for the Paris Electricity Distribution Company). Between 1881 and 1900, new models multiplied in the main advanced countries. The car speed record was also set in 1899, at 108 km/h, by an electric vehicle, the famous Never-Happy. Industrial production struggles to choose initially between electric and internal combustion engines. In 1900, nearly twice as many electric cars were produced as gasoline-powered cars, and by 1905 half of the world’s car fleet was electric.
The key to competition
The ascendancy taken by the combustion engine around 1910 is usually explained by the fall in the price of oil and the improvement of the engines, then the mass production of the famous Ford T from 1913. Nevertheless, the electric car was appreciated for its reliability, cleanliness, silence and ease of driving, and its price remained very close to that of combustion cars for a long time. In reality, it was the inadequacy of the distribution network, particularly in the United States (which became the world’s main producer and innovator when the Great War broke out), which played the main role. The electric car is well suited to cities, where recharging is easy. It is adopted by postal services in various countries, including France, or by taxi networks. But electrifying America’s vast rural areas didn’t pay off until the 1920s, too late to resurrect electric motors.
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