According to the latest numbers, less than one percent of total cars on U.S. roads are fully electric. This though was not always the case, as back in 1900, 34 percent of cars in Boston, Chicago and New York were electrically powered, while half of the total vehicles on the road then were powered by steam.
The misconception is that a powerful force would suppress one technology in favor of another one, the former crushed by the wheels of progress. Scientific and business historians though, have different take on the matter. These experts identified that the culture as well as the technologies that constantly shape and be shaped by it. This is a messy process that would determine eventual winners and abject losers.
There are many reasons why Americans should have adopted electric cars a long time ago. The early versions of electric vehicles were easier to operate compared to their gasoline powered cousins, with a cleaner and better smelling by product. While the battery range and speed was limited, a greater majority of the travel done using cars are just short trips well within the range of these vehicles.
According to David Kirsch, Associate Professor of Management at the University of Maryland and author of “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History”, “We drive gas powered cars today for a complex set of reasons but not because the internal combustion engine is inherently better than the electric motor and battery.”
The Electric Vehicle Company was the largest carmaker in the United States at the turn of the 20th century and at the same time, the biggest car owner in the country. The system then was that EVC rented or leased its vehicles instead of selling them, allowing an individual to take the car for short trips but not assume ownership. This is due to the company mindset that the individual did not have the technical wherewithal to maintain the vehicles. Unfortunately, a series of business deals left the company bankrupt and with it, the future of the electric vehicle.
Because of this, investors turned their back on electric vehicles, leading to hiatus in the development of this technology in the following years. On the other hand, gasoline powered companies improved their technology and lowered their overall purchase cost. Thus, in the next twenty years instilled in the American psyche what a car was and it has been hard to wean them from this mindset.
Kirsch added, “Part of what makes infrastructure is its invisibility. When we have to create infrastructure for ourselves — installing charging stations at our houses, for instance — we make the invisible visible. It becomes an overwhelming task, like having to remake the world. Most people just want a car.”
For his part, Kirsch thinks hybrids would help society change from its old ways. For many, hybrids do not need separate infrastructure nor is there a need to change driving habits overall as well as learn complicated maintenance procedures. The familiarity of the current mindset as well as the rich history would help push hybrids to the top of the market in the near future.