According to the website InsideEVs.com, all-electric vehicles now comprise 3.4 percent of all U.S. vehicle sales – a record high.
I have no reason to question InsideEVs’ figures, but I do question its knowledge of history. The peak of the battery-powered automobile wasn’t 2020 or 2021; nor will it be 2022. It won’t even be within the next five years – and maybe not within ten years.
No, the peak of the all-electric car market was more than 120 years ago, when in 1910 38 percent of automobiles in the U.S. were battery powered, compared to a 22 percent market share for gasoline automobiles. Steam powered cars comprised 40 percent of the market.
Those original battery-powered vehicles had several advantages over gasoline autos of the time. Electric carriages didn’t produce any noise, exhaust or smell. They had no gears, compared to gas automobiles, were easier to operate and had fewer moving parts that required maintenance or repair. The primary disadvantages of these early battery powered cars was their limited range and generally lower top speeds. As a result, the cars were more popular in city environments than in rural areas.
And who says history doesn’t repeat itself?
The first successful U.S. electric car was built around 1885 by William Morrison, a chemist in Des Moines, Iowa. Within ten years, Thomas Edison has his own electric car, the Edison Baker. In 1898 Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) created the world’s first gas-electric hybrid, the Lohner-Porsche Electromobile.
By 1910, New York Edison operated a fleet of its namesake’s electric cars. The Rauch and Lange Carriage Company sold battery-powered cars at its dealerships in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Kansas City. General Electric sold a vehicle that included a battery exchange program with the Hartford Electric Light Company.
Ironically, the battery-powered car market was crushed by Thomas Edison’s friend Henry Ford, with his introduction of the mass-produced Model T, available for $650, compared to almost $2,000 for an all-electric sedan. Once gasoline cars replaced the clunky hand crank with the electric starter, the first generation EVs soon became a mostly forgotten part of transportation history. By the 1920s, the Ford Motor Company produced almost 60 percent of all U.S. automobiles.
Interest in electric vehicles briefly returned in 1973, when the OPEC oil embargo sent gasoline prices skyrocketing to 50 cents a gallon ($3.15 in today’s dollars). In 1975, AMC introduced its battery powered jeep, the Electruck, selling 352 of them to the U.S. Postal Service. By 1983, despite gas prices topping $1.25 a gallon, the post office removed the last Electruck from service, after discovering that they were 50 percent more expensive to operate than its gas-powered vehicles.
David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.