Why You Don’t Drive an Electric Car (But Might Soon)

Thomas Edison with an electric car in 1914

The electric car is something of a puzzle in technological history. In 1900, 34 percent of cars in New York, Boston, and Chicago were electric, and half were powered by steam. By contrast, fewer than one percent of today’s cars are electric. How do we explain this? Were gas cars really superior to the electric ones they replaced or were there other factors at play? In a recent piece in The New York Times Magazine, historian of technology Maggie Koerth-Baker unravels the mystery of the electric car and compares its erratic reception to those of many other kinds of technology we take for granted today. She writes:

Why do we end up embracing one technology while another, better one struggles or fails?

The easiest assumption is that some powerful entity suppresses one technology and favors another, and so the wheel of progress slowly turns. But historians of science and business will tell you that this isn’t the whole story. Instead, the culture we live in and the technologies we use are constantly shaping and being shaped by one another, and it’s this messy and unpredictable process that determines winners and losers.

There are plenty of reasons Americans should have adopted electric cars long ago. Early E.V.’s were easier to learn to drive than their gas cousins, and they were far cleaner and better smelling. Their battery range and speed were limited, but a vast majority of the trips we take in our cars are short ones. Most of the driving we do has been well within the range of electric-car batteries for decades, says David Kirsch, associate professor of management at the University of Maryland and the author of “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History.” We drive gas-powered cars today for a complex set of reasons, Kirsch says, but not because the internal-combustion engine is inherently better than the electric motor and battery. [1]

Koerth-Baker explains that at the turn of the 20th century, New York City’s Electric Vehicle Company (EVC) was the largest auto company in the country. Rather than selling its cars, it leased them so that owners didn’t have to take car of their cars’ maintenance themselves. Electric cars were popular options for people driving short distances, as many urbanites still do today. But when the EVC went bankrupt in 1907 due to shady business and investment dealings, so did the very idea of the electric car. Koerth-Baker writes, “Investors, soured by their experience with the E.V.C., swore they’d never put money into the industry again, and in the lull in electric-car development that followed, gasoline-car companies improved their technology and made their vehicles cheaper.” From that point on, Americans lost sight of the electric car for several decades. Koerth-Baker explains this phenomenon as more to do with happenstance and history than with technological superiority. She writes:

Society shapes the development and use of technology (this is a function of social determinism; for example, cars didn’t really become ubiquitous until they became easy to operate and cheap to buy), but technology also shapes society (technological determinism; think of the way cars then essentially created the suburbs). Over time, the two interact with and change each other, an idea known as technological momentum, which was introduced in 1969 by Thomas P. Hughes, a historian of technology. According to Hughes’s theory, the technologies we end up using aren’t determined by any objective measure of quality. In fact, the tools we choose are often deeply flawed. They just happened to meet our particular social needs at a particular time and then became embedded in our culture.

A graphic representing public acceptance of technology in history, by Andrew Kuo for The New York Times Magazine

Akin to the plight of the electric car is that of gas powered refrigerators, which fell out of production for non-technological reasons: “We use electric refrigerators today because General Electric had lots of money and gas-refrigerator companies like Servel did not.” Advances in recycling in recent decades have also occurred largely on account of non-technological reasons: “The technology to recycle glass bottles, metal and paper existed in 1960, when Americans recycled 6.4 percent of their trash. In 2010, we recycled 34 percent of our trash.” The recycling shift was due to another common trend in the history of technology: shifts in public perception of problems.

Companies like Fisker and Tesla recently began selling all-electric cars, but these are expensive and niche vehicles. So how might the electric car once again return to popularity? By small steps, according to Koerth-Baker. She identifies hybrids like the Toyota Prius and the Chevy Volt as small steps in our transition back to electric cars. Furthermore, she attributes their success to their familiar user experience with no significant changes. These cars boast sophisticated technology but keep it cloaked in familiar garb. For example,

If you’ve ever ridden in a Prius, you may have noticed that it creeps forward when you take your foot off the brake. There’s no technological reason it should do that; engineers just added the feature for the sake of familiarity.

For decades, electric cars seemed outside our world’s petroleum-hungry tunnel vision—outside our “paradigm.” That’s changing today not primarily on account of technological factors, but cultural ones that have helped present the electric car in a familiar package. Now that several major auto manufacturers are finally responding to demand for these vehicles, they’re doing so in a way that won’t scare off traditional consumers. The electric car now has several historical and technological forces working in its favor: public perception of a problem (i.e. environmental awareness), funding (from both the government and major manufacturers), and familiarity of user experience. These factors may bring us to a tipping point in technological history in the near future: the return of the electric car as a viable alternative to the cars we have today.


[1] “Why Your Car Isn’t Electric,” Maggie Koerth-Baker, The New York Times Magazine

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The New York Times Magazine

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