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The Electric Vehicle

, 440 pages

42 halftones, 15 line drawings

June 2013



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The Electric Vehicle

Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age

Winner of the Engineer-Historian Award from the International History and Heritage Committee of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot Award given by the Society of Automotive Historians

Recent attention to hybrid cars that run on both gasoline and electric batteries has made the electric car an apparent alternative to the internal combustion engine and its attendant environmental costs and geopolitical implications. Few people realize that the electric car—neither a recent invention nor a historical curiosity—has a story as old as that of the gasoline-powered automobile, and that at one time many in the nascent automobile industry believed battery-powered engines would become the dominant technology. In both Europe and America, electric cars and trucks succeeded in meeting the needs of a wide range of consumers. Before World War II, as many as 30,000 electric cars and more than 10,000 electric trucks plied American roads; European cities were busy with, electrically propelled fire engines, taxis, delivery vans, buses, heavy trucks and private cars.

Even so, throughout the century-long history of electric propulsion, the widespread conviction it was an inferior technology remained stubbornly in place, an assumption mirrored in popular and scholarly memory. In The Electric Vehicle, Gijs Mom challenges this view, arguing that at the beginning of the automobile age neither the internal combustion engine nor the battery-powered vehicle enjoyed a clear advantage. He explores the technology and marketing/consumer-ratio faction relationship over four "generations" of electric-vehicle design, with separate chapters on privately owned passenger cars and commercial vehicles. Mom makes comparisons among European countries and between Europe and America.

He finds that the electric vehicle offered many advantages, among them greater reliability and control, less noise and pollution. He also argues that a nexus of factors—cultural (underpowered and less rugged, electric cars seemed "feminine" at a time when most car buyers were men), structural (the shortcomings of battery technology at the time), and systemic (the infrastructural problems of changing large numbers of batteries)—ultimately gave an edge to the internal combustion engine. One hopes, as a new generation of electric vehicles becomes a reality, The Electric Vehicle offers a long-overdue reassessment of the place of this technology in the history of street transportation.

Gijs Mom is an associate professor in the history of technology at the Eindhoven University of Technology.

"Those interested in the history of automotive technology should read—and will enjoy—this book."

"An impressive work that couples theoretical sophistication with extensive use of American, Dutch, English, French, and German sources... Surely deserves a place on the bookshelf of automotive historians and anyone interested in why we get the technologies that we do."

"Mom has mined the archives of several countries, uncovering manuscript and published sources in four languages, to produce a model comparative history. His main focus is the United States and Germany, but he follows electric vehicles to Britain, France, and the Netherlands, with side trips to other European countries. The result is a stunning compilation of examples and figures, ranging from Chicago to Berlin and from race cars to milk trucks."

"Mom provides a clear argument that demands consideration from historians of technology as well as policymakers."

"A stunning triumph of creative and sophisticated scholarship... Mom's prescription—that technological change be studied holistically—is a potent antidote to the poisonous extremes of technological, economic, and sociocultural determinism."

"An impressive empirical study."

"The research is exhaustive... He shows how competition between the electric and the gasoline car involved much more than the vehicles themselves, and he helps us understand the electric vehicle as the center of an alternative system. This has future implications... The electric car's 'failure' was not technical but cultural."

"This book is more than just a single case study where present-day technology was around 100 years ago. This book reveals how History is full of possibilities. The challenge is not to learn the lessen too late."

"An interesting study of road based transportation in the early years, with a good deal of insight into the electric car market through most of the century."

" The Electric Vehicle makes an important contribution to the scholarship on the history of the automobile. The author has managed to develop one of the most wide-ranging comparative examinations of a particular technological system since Hughes' Networks of Power. Mom's scholarship is impeccable."

"Crossing disciplines, combining technical, economic and social concerns, and adopting an international perspective, The Electric Vehicle is a very important book that sets a new standard for research in the history of technology."