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History of EVs—Part Two of Two: Clean, Quiet Cars Slowly Yet Surely Catch On Again--With Bumps

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

Screen-shot photo courtesy CBS News

This electric racing car speeds along a track in 1969.

By Alfred Robert Hogan

During the middle decades of the 20th century, electric cars remained oddly relegated to being novelty items. However, occasional pieces highlighted their potential. On the NBC Radio News monthly hour SECOND SUNDAY episode in March 1966 called “Year 2000,” anchor Chet Huntley said, “We can project the electronic revolution…experts tell us we will cluster more and more into cities, drive electrically powered cars, work less, and retire earlier.” William J. Ronan, who served as chairman of NYC’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, opined to Huntley, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to continue to drown ourselves with automobiles and exhaust fumes…We’ve got to stop polluting the air…We’ve got to come up with a better method of moving people from cities to suburbs.”

On Sunday 20 April 1969—two days and 52 weeks before the first Earth Day—on the CBS News television science series THE 21ST CENTURY, host Walter Cronkite extolled the benefits of electric cars. Cronkite, on the half-hour episode “Autos and All That Traffic,” noted that petrol cars were “3,000-pound machines capable of carrying us almost anywhere at more than a mile a minute”—with an abundance of air pollution and noise. By contrast, viewers then saw an electric red-and-yellow, low-to-the-ground aerodynamic racing car emblazoned with the words Autolite Lead Wedge, as the famous news anchor narrated:

Electric cars, like this sleek experimental racer, could come to the rescue of city dwellers surrounded by the deafening roar and choking exhaust of internal combustion engines. Its battery-powered motor runs with a gentle hum and its exhaust doesn’t pollute the air.

Detroit is working to reduce the pollution level of internal combustion engines. But by the 21st century, electric cars could make a comeback. This station wagon, built by Gulton Industries and American Motors, demonstrates what modern technology can do. When you pump the brakes, the batteries get a brief boost. If the electric car comes back, it will probably be used for the short trips that make up most automobile travel: errands, shopping, and neighborhood visits.

Screen-shot photo courtesy CBS News

This woman plugs in her electric station-wagon car in her home garage for battery recharging in 1969.

As a well-dressed lady in gloves, dress, and pumps drove a red-and-white trim electric station wagon through snow-lined suburban streets to her home garage, Mr. Cronkite continued narrating:

Instead of a weekly trip to the gas station, all you do is charge the batteries overnight when you get home by plugging them into a conventional electrical outlet. The cost per month: $15 [or in 2021, US $115].

…Despite quiet operation and low pollution, steam and electricity face stiff competition from longstanding commitments to internal-combustion power, with its proven reliability. But one thing is clear: cleaner, more efficient automobile engines must come—if the cities of the 21st century are to be livable.[1]

The previous year, on Australia’s ABC-TV network in 1968, engineer-inventor Roy Doring showcased for viewers an electric car he had not only self-designed, but also by then been driving for close to three decades. He explained the advantages contrasted with “petrol cars”: “Well, it’s more economical to run, it’s noiseless, smog-free, and you look at the motor about every 15 years,” predicting that “they’ll have to use them in congested cities.” Whereas it then cost 4 shillings (about US$4 in 2021) for a petrol-powered car to travel only “30-35 miles” (48-56 km), those 4 shillings would take an electric car “140 miles” (225 km), as Doring explained. Each charge would last “40 miles” (64 km), given an average speed of “20-30” mph (32-48 kph). The 64-year-old electric engine had just one moving part—compared with 400 in the internal combustion engine it replaced. Doring looked forward to someday not needing the heavy 13 traction batteries.[2]

In January 1970, an Associated Press news feature datelined NEW YORK noted that the major automakers, General Electric, and Westinghouse had all tested models of electric cars. And yet, the AP writer wrote, “Curiously, however, the word seems to be about that the electric car is a foolish novelty that generates more problems than solutions. And nowhere has it been accepted in volume, even by electric utilities.” The 100 or so US electric utilities then boasted a combined fleet of 85,000 vehicles—with no electric vehicles in that mix. Yet as Electric Vehicle Council chairman W.J. Clapp—the former president of the utility industry’s Edison Electric Institute no less—had said not long before: “Technology available today makes it possible to produce [electric] cars with a range of about 100 miles [160 km] at 40 to 50 miles an hour [64-80 kph], with a top speed of 65 miles an hour [105 kph]. Aren’t there a lot of transportation jobs which can be done with a vehicle with those characteristics?” Well, yes there certainly were (and still are).[3]

On Earth Day, Wednesday 22 April 1970, New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay (who had not yet switched from Republican to Democrat) used an electric car to travel from Manhattan to an engagement in Brooklyn—but just for that day, alas—as the famous metropolis was among the myriad places marking the first-annual day dedicated to learning about how to take much better care of our home planet. (In December 2013, the southern loop of Central Park Drive would be renamed for Lindsay. He had closed it to vehicular traffic on weekends, designating it for cyclists, scooters, roller bladers, and pedestrians.) Close to 8,000 km away, on the University of Hawaii campus in Honolulu, the Hawaiian Electric Co. displayed an electric car as well, as did other locales here and there that day.

Meanwhile, electric vehicles soon debuted on another celestial body—Earth’s Moon. Contemplated for close to one decade—often in a more ambitious form that would have necessitated an entire Saturn 5 Moon rocket just to carry the lunar transportation vehicle to Earth’s Moon—a simplified, streamlined, but all-electric Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) resulted from severe cutbacks in NASA’s budgets. The LRV came along in time for the last three Apollo lunar landing "J missions" (after four of the initial 10 landings had been cut), featuring extended stays of three days on the lunar surface, with lots more science.

Photos courtesy NASA and David R. Scott/NASA

Top: two-seat open electric LRV. with TV camera mounted on front, on ground; bottom: Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Jim Irwin works by the electric LRV during an Apollo 15 lunar EVA in 1971.

NASA’s three lunar science-focused “J missions”—Apollo 15 in July-August 1971, Apollo 16 in April 1972, and Apollo 17 in December 1972—all featured 210-KG Lunar Roving Vehicles. The LRV’s chief designer was Ferenc Pavlics (1928- ), a Hungarian-born U.S. mechanical engineer, who had encouragement from German-US rocketry engineer Wernher Von Braun (1912-1977) and others. On Earth, astronauts trained in the 1-G variation called the Grover, variously in remote areas of Nevada and the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos NM, as well as at what was then called the NASA Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and at the NASA Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida. On the Moon, each 3.1-meter-long, aluminum-alloy-frame LRV could carry 490 KG worth of passengers and cargo. Each so-called “Moon buggy” was powered by electric batteries, letting the Mission Commander and Lunar Module Pilot teams travel much more efficiently across the lunar surface with equipment and transport lunar rock and soil samples back much more easily.

The LRVs had been envisioned, designed, and built for NASA in just 17 months by Boeing and Delco, for just $38 million in 1971 (or $261 million in 2021). En route to the Moon, each LRV was compactly stowed in the quad 1 storage bay within the LEM Descent Module. From there, the astronauts once walking on the Moon could employ ropes, pulleys, and cloth tapes to readily access and deploy the LRV. At each science stop the astronauts made in their LRV, TV images would be beamed back to Earth from the front-mounted color camera, via a mesh-dish directional antenna located beside the camera (to one of three Deep Space Network dish antennas in Australia, Spain, and California). Here is how much lunar EV travel each crew logged:

  • ·At Hadley-Apennine, David R. Scott and James B. Irwin traveled 27.1 km during 3 hours and 2 minutes of driving their LRV during three EVAs, ranging as far as 5.0 km from their LEM Falcon.

  • At Descartes, John W. Young and Charles M. Duke went 27.8 km during 3 hours and 26 minutes of driving their LRV during three lunar EVAs, as much as 4.5 km from their LEM Orion.

  • At Taurus-Littrow, Eugene A. Cernan and Dr. Harrison H. “Jack” Schmidt journeyed 35.7 km in driving their LRV during 4 hours and 26 minutes on three lunar EVAs, going as far as 7.6 km from their LEM Challenger.

As Dr. Schmidt later observed, with praise for the LRVs, "The Lunar Rover proved to be the reliable, safe, and flexible lunar exploration vehicle we expected it to be. Without it, the major scientific discoveries of Apollo 15, 16, and 17 would not have been possible; and our current understanding of lunar evolution would not have been possible."

When the Arab nations within the OPEC oil cartel boycotted sales to the US, after its official support for Israel in the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, long gasoline lines, gas shortages, gas price hikes, and gas rationing based on odd-even car license plates ensued for five months. Japan and Western Europe also were affected. The embargo’s effects helped briefly revive talk about the merits of electric cars—which soon dissipated after the boycott ended in March 1974. (A second “oil crisis” or “oil shock” took place in 1979, causing “energy crisis” gas lines and gas price hikes and such again, with somewhat similar transient effects on electric car prospects. POTUS Jimmy Carter called for a "moral equivalent of war" response, which had its positive and negative aspects: Carter’s modest increases in alternative renewable energy research were offset by his pushes for synthetic fuels (such as coal gasification) and nuclear fission energy (despite the fresh March 1979 TMI nuclear plant disaster), and his Persian Gulf Carter Doctrine (to militarily protect US oil interests in that region). But while Carter ordered solar hot water heaters placed on the White House roof in DC (only to be removed during Ronald W. Reagan's presidency in 1986), even the presidential limo was never symbolically upgraded to being electric—neither then, nor since. One positive lasting result from the 1970s energy upheavals, based on a 2019 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge MA: teenagers aged 15-18 during 1979 were found significantly less likely to be car drivers later in their mid-30s and more likely to use public mass transit and to drive less if they did own a car.) But yet again, the US federal government missed out on yet two more promising chances when it could have aggressively promoted mass-conversion to electric cars.

By the 1990s, a rejuvenation of electric cars at last seemed underway, at least a faux one—especially in California. The electrics GM EV1, Toyota RAV4 EV, and Honda EV Plus debuted on the roads—in really limited numbers and for just a few short years. (“Hybrid cars,” such as the Toyota Prius, also arrived, with both electric and gas power as options in each vehicle, with modestly more success.) In 2003, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), finally buckled to industry pressures and curtailed its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate, which dated from 1990 (the same year California’s Big Green environmental ballot question lopsidedly failed, by vote of 64% to 36%). The CARB cave-in, added to other factors, effectively pulled the plug on pure electrics.

DVD cover for Who Killed the Electric Car?

In June 2006, the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” directed by Chris Paine and narrated by actor Martin Sheen, explored the creation and later destruction of US battery-electric cars, specifically all but about 40 of the 5,000 or so General Motors EV1. As the film explained, a de facto alliance of automobile makers, the petroleum industry, the US federal government, the California government, hydrogen vehicles, and reluctant consumers interacted to thwart their adoption. EV1s were leased mostly in Southern California (and Arizona), after the California Air Resources Board (CARB) had passed the zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) standard in 1990. That rule required the top seven US automobile suppliers to offer electric vehicles—if they wanted to keep selling their gas-run cars in California. The milquetoast regulation only stipulated that at least 2 percent of each company's in-state car sales would need to be non-polluting--and even that not till 1998. But GM and other firms sought to kill even that California ZEV Mandate, deploying lawyers and lobbyists. A confidential memo from the American Automobile Manufacturers Association in March 1995 asked for bids to gin up a "grassroots campaign" to repeal even that limited mandate. And thanks in part to absurdly cheap gas prices and mass infatuation with gas guzzler sport utility vehicles (SUVs), all too few people sought out EVs. (Among the high-profile exceptions, as the film noted in interviews with famous and satisfied EV drivers, such as famous actors Ed Begley Jr., Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, Danny Devito, and Alexandra Paul.)

As the film made clear, oil companies feared losing their near-monopoly on car fuel, while auto companies feared both the short-term costs of re-developing EVs and the lowered long-term profits from EVs needing little maintenance, no oil changes, and no tune-ups. But a GM spokesflack attributed the apparent lack of consumer interest to the maximum range that equated to 128 to 161 km per charge, something dubbed “range anxiety,” and to the still-high upfront cost, even when softened with modest government aid. The reality: GM and other automakers focused on short-term lucrative profits from the sales of Hummers and SUVs.

Meanwhile, as the documentary explained, the industry’s Western States Petroleum Association had bankrolled campaigns to oppose utilities installing public car-charging stations. Using deceptive “astroturfing” groups such as "Californians Against Utility Abuse," oil-industry lobbyists feigned being “consumers,” and spread toxic misinformation. Mobil and other oil firms even brazenly advertised against electric cars in national newspapers. And Chevron gained control of Ovonics, the advanced electric battery company.

Photo courtesy Who Killed the Electric Car?