Electric Vehicles Outsold Gasoline Cars – in the 1900s!

Not too many people realized that electric cars once outsold gasoline cars in America in 1900. In fact, electric vehicles (EVs) developed then were seen as better performers than gasoline-based cars because they didn’t have the vibration, smell, and noise associated with their gasoline counterpart. Now EVs are considered a niche and Americans’ gas combustion cars consumed about 400 million gallons of gasoline per day in 2006.

electric motorcycle
electric motorcycle
   Kurt Kwok vice president of corporate marketing at Applied Materials on an electric motorcycle that is sold in certain Best Buy stores in the US.

Last week, while on vacation back home, I attended an alternative energy vehicle conference in Singapore. The event focused on technology, policy, and social issues associated with making clean transportation solutions viable and real. I thought “Plug-In Singapore” (the aptly official name of the event) provided a good platform and meeting place for local and global thought leaders from the electric, hybrid, and alternative fuels vehicle industries and the Infrastructure support ecosystem to express their vision, share their know-how, and define actionable frameworks for the next generation clean transportation solutions in Asia and beyond.

The prospect of a viable battery-electric car is enormously appealing. Electric vehicles assure compliance with acceptable emission standards and offer freedom from dependency on geopolitical sensitive fuels. The cost of electricity is lower than the cost of gasoline, and could be even free if powered by clean energy sources like solar. On top of that, EVs require lower maintenance than gas combustion cars (no need to change oil filters every few thousand miles!). Today, virtually every car manufacturer is developing and or offering EVs. However, to put EVs in the mainstream, the following questions must be answered and this Plug-in Singapore event did a good job at starting the dialogue.

  1. Consumer’s “charge anxiety” i.e. consumers want to charge, plug-in, and top off the battery whenever the vehicle is parked, day or night. When will there be sufficient infrastructure such as charging stations for that?
  2. Brownouts exist in parts of Europe, U.S., and elsewhere despite adequate power generation capacity because of power-distribution system limitations. How will brownouts affect EVs?
  3. Adequate base-load electric-power generation capacity exists in the U.S. and Europe to support vast fleets of EVs — but only if these fleets are charged at night, when electricity demand is low. Is there enough electric power available when and where needed to charge a fleet of EVs during the day?
  4. What is government’s and utilities’ role in making widespread use of EVs a reality?
  5. Could acceptance of EVs be accelerated if all public transportation is converted first e.g. taxis and buses etc.?

Singapore, like many other countries, is well-positioned for the deployment of EVs because of its compact urban environment, robust electrical grid and IT infrastructure. With the support of the government, Singapore is developing a EV test bed which offers potential economic benefits for manufacturing and R&D in areas such as battery technology, power electronics and electric drive systems. Renault-Nissan and Keppel Energy have signed an MOU with the EV taskforce. Renault-Nissan will supply EVs and share knowledge to develop common standards. Keppel Energy will develop charging stations and other supporting infrastructure.

Most of us walked away from this Plug-in Singapore event with a sense that EVs will make prime time within two to three years. At the show, they showed EVs to be a cost effective solution.

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