Re: Cadillac killed the Electric Car (in 1912 with the electric starter)

The National Post has an interesting article Cadillac killed the electric car explaining a popular theory that the electric car originally lost out to its gasoline competitor once Cadillac developed the electric starter.  Although I like the logic of this also, by 1912 when Cadillac created the electric starter I believe that the gas powered car had already become dominant.  The electric starter was important to the continued development and enjoyment of gasoline powered cars by everyone (and SAFER!).

Charles Kettering, GM Engineer, with the first electric starter

Early cars were steam powered, or battery powered, or electric, or gas powered.  It was an open market, full of innovators and experimentation.  The reason the current conventions for the automobile developed was natural selection — survival of the fittest.  As each innovation or approach came to market, the public selected and bought the ones that were the most useful, and features of those models were copied or emulated by competitors.  Just over 100 years later we have today’s somewhat homogeneous automobiles.

If we all drove electric cars and someone suddenly developed a gasoline car today it would be viewed as a masterpiece.  The internal combustion engine gives the greatest independence, the quickest recharge, and the lightest, most efficient package of any of the technologies we know today.  The major drawbacks are emissions, which we have largely solved in modern automobiles via the catalytic converter, and the use of non-renewable fossil fuels.  Current gasoline is often E10, or 10% Ethanol; and many flex-fuel cars can run on E85, or 85% ethanol / 15% gasoline.  It is fair then to say that we can run many of today’s internal combustion engines on renewable fuels, and continue to eliminate non-renewable fossil fuels.

The reason I am so excited about extended range electric vehicles (EREV)  like the Chevrolet Volt or the Cadillac Converj Concept is that they give options.  Every vehicle can be characterized by stored energy (in the form of gasoline for conventional cars), and time of refueling (visiting a gas station, or plugging in to house current for an extended range electric vehicle).  What the EREVs give us is more options.  In my daily commute I may be able to charge at home, never need to use the gas mode, and seldom need to refuel at a gas station.  That convenience is important to me.  I am unlikely to be able to generate more gasoline at home.  There are however ways to generate electricity safely at home (solar).  Even drawing off the grid however just the convenience of a car that automatically refuels itself in my garage is an improvement.

Plug-in hybrids like the Cadillac XTS Concept have a different mix of attributes along that same range.  How much battery should a hybrid carry?  Enough to run the automobile for 10 miles or 20 miles or 40 miles?  The trade off is in weight for the battery, and oddly enough in time of recharge.  If I only commute 10 miles a day, I don’t need a 40 mile battery.  GM’s two-mode Hybrids today such as in the Escalade Hybrid tend to be able to travel in electric-only mode only at slow speeds and for only a very short range.  The plug-in hybrids (designed to plug in to wall current and recharge overnight) will have an extended battery reserve, and an extended range.  In question is how far that extended range should be.  The first full EREVs will have a 40 mile range and so a LOT of battery power and weight.  I am hopeful the plug in hybrids will have a 20 mile range, which would give me a lot of options in my commute.

This is a terrific time for the automobile.  We have higher performance vehicles than ever before, cleaner vehicles than ever before, and safer vehicles than ever before.  The new vehicles are promising to be even better than the ones we drive today.  I am very optimistic that Cadillac is bringing automobiles to market that will continue to provide enjoyment for automobile lovers.

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