Friday, July 02, 2010

Charles Kettering killed the electric car!

I've been thinking about electric cars a lot recently. Tesla Motors had a huge rollout on Wall Street this week, GM added 4 regions to the list that will get its Volt this fall and the Senate is trying to pass legislation to develop electric vehicle communities in a few specific cities around the country.

A plethora of car companies with very diverse approaches are on their way into the market. While most are still far out of the price range of the average consumer and leave car makers with smaller profit margins than conventional cars, virtually every car manufacture plans to have an EV in the coming years. Nearly everyone already has a variety of hybrids.

This will be the first time consumers have had a choice of how they want to power their vehicle since Henry Ford won the nation over with the internal combustion engine.

So, let's take a look back.

We've just passed the turn of the 20th-century and 40-percent of American cars are steam powered, 38-percent are electric and the final 22-percent are internal combustion, gas motors. Granted, 38-percent of automobiles a hundred years ago is still less than 35,000 cars. We have around 250-million now.

Electric cars are cleaner, quieter, gearless and therefore easier to drive, and they required no physical effort to start. Gas cars are all equipped with a pesky hand crank to start and many consumers are annoyed with the extra effort.

Of course the early 20th-century electric car, like those being built by physicist Thomas Edison (pictured above), have some drawbacks as well; its range makes city-to-city trips impractical, many people’s homes are ill-equipped to plug the cars in and the batteries are unreliable to say the least. But the downfalls of electric cars are not enough to sway consumers away from them. Not yet.

It took one Charles F. Kettering to do that. Yes, Chris Paine - I know who killed the electric car!

Kettering - inventor of things like Freon refrigerant, colored auto-paint and leaded gasoline - created the first electric starter motor. The starter, as it's now commonly known, enables an engine to turn itself by using a solenoid to take electricity from the car's battery. A small gear in the starter engages the car's flywheel and turns the crankshaft for you. Once the flywheel is triggered to spin, the starter disengages and the engine can now use the spark from its plugs to ignite the mix of air and fuel, running on its own power.

Without Kettering, every internal combustion engine needed to be cranked by hand and the downfalls many drivers had overlooked in electric cars soon became the success of the internal combustion engine and Henry Ford, who of course did his part by revolutionizing factory production. The federal government poured huge amounts of subsidies into anyone willing to go out and find oil to for the nation’s newfound joy in automobiling. And now here we are.

The irony remains bitter 100 years later as we weigh the same issues. While electric cars are good for people with average commutes and those who live in major cities, gas cars still hold the convenience factor. But the paradigm is starting to reverse.

Conventional automobiles are increasingly seen as dirty and unsustainable. If an electric car can simply be plugged in at night and use the cheaper, off-peak electricity from our nation’s dormant power grid, why do we need to stop at the gas station?

The car market in the next decade will look similar to how it did 100 years ago. The technology should be very diverse and when you go to the car dealership you won’t just have to pick between colors, wheels and power windows; you'll have to choose your power source as well.

It's hoped that longer lasting batteries, coupled with tiny gas engines to recharge, should make battery-only electrics compete once again in a marketplace of abundant car choices. But a combination of gas, diesel and plug-in hybrids; as well as efficient conventional gas and biofuel engines, could change the game completely.

Everybody drive safe this holiday weekend, no matter what power plant you're using!


  1. Just like watching the History channel... Thanks Flash!

  2. Kettering wrote a pamphlet called "Science and the Future of the Automobile" (1916) in which he takes some interesting peeps at what might be useful to the car techno-industry. He never really talks about direct applications--just musing in general about what might be useful--and does come to electric, solar and hydrogen power (as well as radium)...again he doesn't really ever come out and say that the future of the car is electric, or solar. Granted he was taking the long view back their in 1916, but if you read between the lines a bit I think that the man was telling his audience something. He does have an unqualified love for petroleum products--which he says was put on the earth to allow man to lift his head out of the muck--but he also opens the doors to other engery sources.

  3. John PTak- Very insightful, thanks for sharing.

    Do you have a link where I could read the pamphlet?

  4. I wonder how many people died of lead poisoning when lead gasoline was still being used. Scary to think about.