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Steve Hansen In rush to embrace electric cars, let's not forget flaws

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Steve Hansen

Posted: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 12:00 am

"What's that?" I curiously asked my dad.

"That's a 'Detroit Electric,'" he replied, as the vintage vehicle quietly rolled by.

At the time, I was eight years old and had never seen a car like that before. Its enclosed body looked like a horse-drawn carriage without horses. The early electric vehicle was a 1916 model, and it definitely looked out-of-place in 1953.

All the vehicles that went by our Ann Arbor, Mich. home made noises commonly associated with gasoline-powered engines, but not the Detroit Electric. It had an eerie and almost silent electric motor hum, as a well-dressed, little old lady drove it down Olivia Avenue.

I could see, through the carriage windows, that the car had no steering wheel. The matronly figure had her white glove on a horizontal pole called a tiller, which manipulated the direction of the front wheels.

The Detroit Electric was advertised as getting 80 miles per battery charge. On one reported test, the car ran 211.3 miles on a single "plug-in." Interestingly, today's "green" electrics only get about 40 miles per charge. So much for almost 100 years of electric automobile technology!

These cars never caught on like their gasoline counterparts. The Detroit Electric survived through the 1920s and most of the depression during the 1930s. The last model was built in 1939. The Ann Arbor car was the only one I ever saw on the road.

Why did the electric car fail? It was simply a case of no public demand. If a profit could have been made by expanding production of this type of vehicle, Henry Ford or some other industrialist surely would have done so.

But reality was that any combustion-engine model had a higher top speed, a longer range of travel and didn't need an extension cord at night. That's why the public back then (as well as now) overwhelmingly selected gasoline-powered automobiles.

During most of the automobile age, there were no government bailouts for electric vehicles. There were no mpg mandates. There was no robbing Peter to give Paul a tax incentive or rebate to buy one. There were no start-up companies to build electro-mobiles with public funds that were doomed by destiny to fail.

Today, electric cars are considered the wave of the future. However, few people have stopped to consider their long-term effects. For example, if roads were filled with millions of buzzing little boxes of transportation, doesn't that mean many more coal-fired power plants will have to be built? What would that do to the power grids and transmission lines? What if terrorism struck the grid? Would transportation come to a major standstill?

What about ozone pollution from electric motors? How about the effect of electro-magnetic fields generated by these motors on human health? What about the environmental impact of old lithium batteries? Do we have enough natural resources to make millions of these, along with millions of miles of copper wire for electric motors?

For those of us who have been around for a while, we remember the great government fiascoes of other countries, such as the Russian Moskvitch and the East German Trabant.

The Moskvitch 402 of the 1950s was a throwback for its time, using much earlier German technology from the 1930s. The 1970s Trabant was about as crude as they came, with 18 hp and a smoking, two-cycle engine. Needless to say, as exported items, both cars were complete failures. Western competitiveness and free-market-produced cars were far superior to these aforementioned bureaucratic nightmares.

Today, the question is: Are we giving up our right of choice and going down the same road as these other countries by allowing politicians and governmental administrative agencies to dictate future vehicles?

Perhaps an electric car is just fine for a little old lady on the streets of Ann Arbor. But unless there are major advances in electrical engineering, generated by worldwide competition, I seriously doubt that most Americans will find pure electric vehicles practical — even with governmental mandates, billions of taxpayer dollars and the passing of a century since the technology was first invented.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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