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Why we aren't all driving electric cars

Posting in Energy

Believe it or not, 34 percent of all cars in New York, Boston, and Chicago ran on electric motors ... in 1900. Now, the percentage of cars on American roads that are fully electric is less than one percent.

So why is it that E.V. technology was left behind while the internal combustion engine thrived throughout the 20th century? Maggie Koerth-Baker, writing for The New York Times, offers up a history lesson that helps explain why every driver isn't in an all-electric car today.

Interestingly, the old electric cars were cleaner and were easier to drive than gas-powered cars. The Electric Vehicle Company even had a version of modern day carsharing, Koerth-Baker reports. But a series of events, with no connection to the technology and usability of electric motors, rattled the industry. At the same time, gas-powered car companies improved their technology and brought down the cost to own their cars. The internal combustion engine has been the norm ever since. Koerth-Baker makes a good point about why gas-powered cars stuck around:

Society shapes the development and use of technology (this is a function of social determinism; for example, cars didn’t really become ubiquitous until they became easy to operate and cheap to buy), but technology also shapes society (technological determinism; think of the way cars then essentially created the suburbs). Over time, the two interact with and change each other, an idea known as technological momentum, which was introduced in 1969 by Thomas P. Hughes, a historian of technology. According to Hughes’s theory, the technologies we end up using aren’t determined by any objective measure of quality. In fact, the tools we choose are often deeply flawed. They just happened to meet our particular social needs at a particular time and then became embedded in our culture.

Does this mean that electric cars are doomed to a future of irrelevance? Maybe not. But, as David Kirsch, an electric car expert, tells Koerth-Baker, the electric car will have to emulate the experience of driving a car with a gas engine before the all-electric vehicle will really become popular. (Hopefully without mock pollution coming out the back end.)

Companies like Tesla are already working to make electric car infrastructure that mimics the experience of a driving a gas-powered car.

Obviously, one of the downsides to electric vehicle ownership is its limited range. In the U.S. gas stations are everywhere but electric charging stations aren't ubiquitous. Tesla has built super-fast electric car charging stations along corridors in California that look like gas-pumping stations. And, in the UK, an "electric highway" is making it easier to charge quickly on a roadtrip. But it will take much more of this innovation and infrastructure buildup before all-electric becomes the norm.

Why Your Car Isn’t Electric [The New York Times]

Photo: Flickr/dok1

— By on October 9, 2012, 6:24 AM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure