Reader Question: EV Before IC?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Jason writes: I’m always fascinated with your approach to topics and how you can see everything “through the windshield”. I ran into an article the other day and would be interested in getting your thoughts. I didn’t realize that electric vehicles pre-dated gasoline engines. I’ve realized in the past that this country was built on cheap fuel and is very much susceptible to high gas prices because of the distance between our centers of trade. I’ve never heard of the GM and Rockefeller’s putting an end to the electric cars. If you have an article you written that addresses this topic please point me to it. If not, I’d be curious to know what you think?

My reply: I’ll tell you what I know! 

Electric cars were very competitive with internal combustion-engined cars at the turn of the last century (early 1900s) because they were simple, easier to use (for women, especially) and cost-competitive.


But EVs lost both advantages as cars powered by internal combustion engines were refined – and mass produced. The introduction of the Ford Model T is what killed the first electric cars – not any conspiracy by GM and Rockefeller.

The T made ownership of a car feasible for almost anyone. It was the first inexpensive car – and became less so with each model year; it was also very rugged and versatile. It was particularly useful to people who lived outside the city (e.g., rural people) who didn’t have convenient access to electricity. Gas being a much more portable/storable/versatile fuel than electricity.

You could gas up easily and almost anywhere.

It’s interesting that more than 100 years later, the electric car’s main problems persist – not because of some conspiracy against them but rather because of the limitations (and expenses) of battery-powered vehicles.

. . .

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. I’m not in the know about GM putting an end to electric cars (I think electric cars died before GM< was established)….but GM definitely DID put an end to trolley cars, so they could sell their buses.

    • Hi Nunz,

      I think the main point is that cars (not electric) liberated most people by giving them much greater personal mobility. Unlike electric cars – and “public” transport – cars could (and did) succeed on the merits, on the basis of natural market demand.

      • eric, you mentioned Henry Ford and the Model T. It just happened I was listening to this video in which Henry Ford doubled the day pay of his workers. It helped the entire economy, the exact opposite of what govt. does these days with corporatism running the show.

      • Hey Eric!

        Absolutely! Not to mention that the infrastructure for electricity was pretty spotty back in those days. Most people still lived on farms or around small towns, as opposed to the cities- and thus many people didn’t even have electricity yet- so even if the cars had been practical…it wouldn’t have mattered, seeing as the people who needed the cars the most, had no way to charge them.

        Now, 100 years later, electricity is everywhere…but the cars are still just as impractical!

        I guess we take it for granted how liberating ICE cars truly are.

        • That’s really the key isn’t it? Inexpensive, practical, capable cars are now taken for granted and trivia like a fraction of a percent of polluton is somehow important. Or “Safety”- nobody remembers how common it was to die around horses due to broken necks, or severe injuries gone septic.

          A few months back I actually came upon the scene of an Amish buggy wreck- horse freaked out, turned it around and rolled it down a highway ditch. The young guy inside was cut up, the horse was cut up, and his cargo (canning jars!) was heavily damaged. The buggy had broken glass and broken wooden bodywork.

          We righted the buggy- he thanked me and mounted up and went on his way.

    • Trolleys also were not going to travel from town to town, even railroads did not hit every little town, but buses could, and did. No one would have ante’d up for stringing electric bus cables to each and every town, either.

      • They didn’t need to destroy trolly lines to sell buses fpor intercity travel, ’cause like ya said, intercity trollies largely didn’t exist; but the trollies for practical intracity transit in even small cities and towns, and they were almost entirely run by private companies and not subsidized.

        The trolly infrastructure, once amortized, made running the trollies extremely economical, and the trolly cars could last for near ever. Once GM destroyed the lines and replaced them with buses, almost all of the transit in small cities and towns died within a few years, and what remained (usually only in large cities) ended up needing to be subsidized. With transit drying up in most places, other than the large cities, it then became necessary for most people to buy cars- or second or third cars for the wife and kids- which was probably GM’s ultimate goal in destroying the trolly lines.

        Now the government is in the process of destroying private cars……

        • Hey Nunz,

          Pretty sure GM took advantage of the fact that the Trolley system was unprofitable and unpopular, acquired de facto ownership through their extensive investment in National City Lines and pushed buses as a cheaper alternative to trolleys, which they were. This, and the emerging conflict between cars and trolleys, doomed the trolleys. They didn’t kill a profitable and popular form of public transit, they took advantage of the looming death of the trolley system and, apparently, conspired to monopolize bus and equipment sales to National City Lines.

          “By the 1930s, LA’s streetcars had become wildly unprofitable and were quickly losing riders. In Transport of Delight, Jonathan Richmond points out that the Pacific Electric company managed to turn a profit in only one year between 1913 and the beginning of World War II.

          During the war years, transit ridership spiked because of government gas rationing. But the streetcars emptied out again in peacetime. Between 1945 and 1951, the number of riders carried each year fell by nearly 80 million”.

          “…the companies (GM and allied highway interests) were convicted in 1949 of conspiring to monopolize bus and equipment sales to National City Lines.


          • Jeremy, the “streetcar conspiracy” seems to be one of those unkillable urban legends that just keep circulating forever, like the story of the 100 mpg carburetor being suppressed by the evil oil companies. As you (and the linked article) point out, streetcars had become unprofitable and buses were much more flexible and economical to operate since rails were not needed.

            • streetcar companies had crony deals for right of way with government. Those crony deals consisted of things like maintaining the streets, politically set fares, etc. In other words terms that were workable in the 19th century but were bankrupting in the 20th. Government put the street car business under along with the cost of the equipment. Maybe they could have continued in some form in the age of the automobile under certain conditions but not under the ones they had to deal with.

          • Oh….you guys are talking about trolleys? I thought we were talking about troll-ies -ya know, little gay trolls…. 🙂

            But seriously….

            The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. L.A. is a special case, as it had a labyrinthtine system (*even employing huge heavy-rail cars in places); and as usual, where there is complexity, politics and money….the results aren’t gonna be good- not to mention that L.A. was the forefront of automobile culture, having established a huge highway system very early, and having a large affluent population.

            But in other places? ‘Specially small cities and large towns, trolleys were very popular and even profitable- No doubt, they wouldn’t have lasted too much longer than they did, due to sprawl and car culture….but in a lot of cases I do believe they were killed prematurely- and the buses they were replaced with either disappeared shortly thereafter…of became taxpayer burdens.

            I guess the point is moot though, ’cause no form of mass transit is sustainable- since those who must use it are unwilling or unable to pay for the cost of the service they use. So of course, politicians now push mass transit and gladly use our money to subsidize the absurd cost of it’s construction and operation, so that illegals, retards and greenies [I’m being redundant!] can get a nearly free ride to work that only takes two or three times as long as driving, and gives one the opportunity to be crammed into a seething mass of humanity(?) where one can sample and acquire germs and STDs from every continent.

  2. Between the invention of the electric starter for ICE and the Model T it was all over for electric cars.

    Once the difficultly of starting an ICE car was solved by that invention, the only real major disadvantage was gone. Jay Leno has an electric car (1909 Baker) from the turn of the century, it’s range is 80 miles on a charge, so in that way, there hasn’t been much progress at all.


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