Electric Avenue

How to Make Zero-Emissions Cars Go Mainstream

Plug and play: the Chevrolet Volt, Detroit, January 2009
Plug and play: the Chevrolet Volt, Detroit, January 2009. (Mark Blinch / Courtesy Reuters)

In 1896, a 33-year-old engineer working for the Detroit branch of Thomas Edison’s Edison Illuminating Company traveled to New York for the firm’s annual convention. The automobile was the obvious technology of the future by then, but it wasn’t yet clear what would propel it: steam, electricity, or gasoline. Edison had been tinkering with batteries that could power a car, so he was interested to hear that the engineer from Detroit had invented a two-cylinder gasoline vehicle. After hearing a description of the car, Edison immediately recognized its superiority.

“Young man, that’s the thing; you have it,” Edison told the inventor. “Keep at it! Electric cars must keep near to power stations. The storage battery is too heavy. Steam cars won’t do either, for they have to have a boiler and a fire. Your car is self-contained -- it carries its own power plant -- no fire, no boiler, no smoke, and no steam. You have the thing. Keep at it.”

The engineer’s name was Henry Ford, and he did keep at it. By 1908, the Ford Motor Company’s Model T was the best-selling car in America. And for a century to come, the limitations Edison recited largely kept electric vehicles off the road.

Yet electric vehicles have a major inherent advantage over gasoline-powered ones: they use less energy to drive a given number of miles. The internal combustion engine wastes around 70 percent of its fuel on generating heat rather than thrust, whereas electric motors can waste as little as ten percent (although significantly more than that is wasted when one includes generating electricity back at the power plant and transmitting it). Moreover, because they can plug into the grid, electric vehicles can draw from multiple sources of power, including renewable energy. Switching from gas to electricity for transportation offers the potential to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, especially if the original energy source is clean.

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