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Electric vehicle: Chronicle of an announced resurgence - Part 2/4

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Emergence of EV - 1890s

An the early days of the automobile, EVs were on an equal footing with combustion-powered vehicles. And unlike combustion-powered vehicles, EVs have a number of significant advantages. It is clean, discreet, silent, easy and pleasant to drive, and its acceleration is continuous and progressive. There is no speed, no vibrations when driving, and maintenance is rudimentary. With fewer parts, it breaks down less often. No help is needed to start it, compared to the difficult and capricious, even dangerous combustion vehicle.
She will eventually seduce women and become the darling of the women, as the advertisements of the time announced. They could thus take their place in these vehicles that were easy to step over without dirtying their outfits. This image would later turn against EVs after their decline, when they were described as "jaw harps for old ladies" (Debraine 2010, p 28) when their macho critics touted the supremacy of the combustion vehicle.
 
In terms of performance, EV is not to be outdone. On the one hand, the cost of consumption in kW/h is derisory when compared to the overall cost of EVs and, given its mechanical simplicity, its maintenance is insignificant (mainly tyres and brakes).
On the other hand, its efficiency, i.e. the ratio between the usable energy and the energy used, is almost three times higher than that of the internal combustion vehicle, i.e. 80 % compared with 23 % for the petrol engine and 28 % for the diesel engine (figure given excluding the battery).
Finally, it was the first vehicle to break the mythical 100 km/h (105.88 mph) barrier with C. Jenatzy's "Jamais Contente" as early as 1899. This feat made EVs even stronger and placed their technology ahead of other engines, especially as the feat was repeated a few years later, just after being downgraded by a steam vehicle, with W C Baker's Torpedo, which broke a new speed record with 160 km/h in 1902.
As a vehicle of communication for the automobile, the race will be the new challenge for manufacturers who will be exhibiting know-how and performance through prototypes that will become models for new drivers. Speed coupled with power remains a convincing argument in the automotive industry to boost the image of a manufacturer, the effigy of a winning brand remains in the minds.
 
These characteristics allow EVs to develop rapidly, and more specifically to enter into a first market with taxi companies. While London acquired a fleet of electro-mobile taxis as early as 1896 with a range of forty kilometres and a twelve-hour battery recharge, followed by New York in 1897, Parisian taxis adopted the Krieger electric cab in 1898, a clean and quiet electric cab in the dirty and noisy horse-drawn carriage, combined with an innovative commercial principle of battery exchange.
 
Krieger electric car
 
The newspaper La nature commented on the urban environment in an article published on July 9, 1898: "It is now a fact that the petrol-powered carriage cannot be a system for operating public cars in a big city" (M. E. Hospitalier), a surprising comment on reading more than a century later, while there are still many petrol taxis in the capital(s). It effectively reveals the awareness of a pollution of the public space.
 
In the United States, the significant presence of electric car manufacturers led to the operation of an electric fleet of more than 30 % at the beginning of the 20th century. Finally, the emergence of EVs at the end of the 19th century will simultaneously constitute its golden age. At no other time in the history of EV, not even today, even if we cannot presume the future, will EV regain such popularity among industrialists, depriving users of an archetype resolutely turned towards a sustainable future.
 
The first decline in EVs was confirmed at the end of the first decade of the 20th century, leading to its virtual disappearance around 1920, earlier in Europe and then in the United States. There are many reasons for this disappearance.
First of all, thermal motorization is making rapid progress after a period of uncertainty while EVs are stagnating. Manufacturers innovating in electric powertrains are abandoning the principle in favour of internal combustion engines. Historically, at that time, the demand for oil experienced an extraordinary increase. It rose from one thousand tonnes in 1860 (three years after the date of first extraction) to seven hundred thousand tonnes in 1870 and twenty million tonnes in 1900.
It is a fact that this meteoric growth is mainly due to the arrival of the undisputed queen of the new century: the automobile.
 
However, phases of uncertainty benefit from interesting innovations. In 1901, Porsche developed the first hybrid engine with its prototype "Semper Vivus" from Lohner-Porsche.
 
 
To overcome the low capacity of the batteries, he integrates an internal combustion engine into his EV, which powers an alternator that in turn powers the battery and provides the energy needed to propel the vehicle. A few years later, he designed the first 4×4 vehicle by incorporating an electric motor in each wheel.
 
Another reason for the decline of EVs was the start of mass production in the thermal car industry, especially since 1908, with the release of the mythical " Ford T "in the United States, which will reach 15 million copies produced worldwide in 1927.
 
Ford T
 
T Edison, inventor of the electric light bulb, benefactor of EV, and friend of Ford, proposed the Edison-Ford model in 1913 equipped with its alkaline iron-nickel battery, but it was a flop because of its lack of power.
 
If in 1900, the EV shared with the steam car more than 70 % of the sales market, ten years later the curve would be diametrically reversed, as the competitiveness of the gasoline engine was then out of all proportion to that of the electric motor.
However, the decline of EVs during these years is also to be blamed for the consequent establishment of fuel sales outlets, in particular the appearance of the electric starter (1912), which facilitated the use of internal combustion vehicles, the birth of the first service stations (1920), the price of petrol, which continues to fall, but also the purchase price of internal combustion vehicles, which also falls in line with the very large number of units produced on the production line.
 
Finally, battery life becomes critical. Too short to cover the new needs of users who want to make longer trips and reach different cities without being confined to urban centres, they are looking for a greater range than the fifty or so kilometres prescribed by batteries. Undermined by so many prejudices, EVs disappeared from the private car market until 1940. Only a small niche market remained for commercial vehicles, with production reserved for small-scale delivery and transport of components.
 

First resurgence - 1940s

It was not until the Second World War and the restrictions imposed by the occupying forces in France on fuels (unavailability) and then on manufacturers at the European level (ban on production in 1942) that EVs were once again referred to, at that time, as crisis vehicles. Of course, this phase of resurgence remains purely symbolic with regard to the production of internal combustion vehicles built worldwide.
 
However, in times of energy rationing, alternative forms of motorization are back: horse, pedal cycle, gas, electricity. Abandoned means of locomotion, which have practically disappeared from history, are resurfacing. Forgotten technologies are coming back, obeying new experimental opportunities, witnessing the reversibility of innovations.
This eternal need to move people and transport goods, which is inherent to the organisation of people in society, is obsessing car manufacturers who are once again taking an interest in EVs, ready to resume experiments where they were abandoned a generation earlier.
 
Peugeot is thus developing its "VLV" (Voiture Légère de Ville), the ancestor of the Smart by its small size, with a range of around eighty kilometres for a weight of one hundred and fifty kilograms.
 
Peugeot VLV
 
However, its instructions for use are so caricatural as to make its use restrictive. It shows the almost sickly vulnerability of EVs with regard to their autonomy. No fewer than eleven causes of energy expenditure to be avoided are listed in its mode of use to gain freedom of range, implicitly meaning that one should neither weigh heavy nor live at the top of a hill, not drive below ten degrees Celsius, and avoid winding and bumpy roads. In short, the ideal time to drive this EV would be on a slope with a good tailwind storm!
 
Another revolutionary innovation appeared in 1941, the work of the engineer J. A. Grégoire, who developed a high-performance electric car, the CGE-Tudor at the request of the Compagnie Générale d'Electricité (CGE), built by the car manufacturer Hotchkiss with batteries supplied by the "Accumulateur Tudor" company.
 
CGE-Tudor
 
It breaks the record for distance on the road without recharging the batteries by covering the two hundred and twenty-five kilometres between Paris and Tours at an average speed of forty-two kilometres per hour (42.32 km/h). This two-seater cabriolet is packed with batteries, and its engine allows deceleration energy to be recovered during braking. To compensate for its excessive weight, J.A. Grégoire uses an aluminum-based light alloy, which resists better than steel to the corrosiveness of battery acids in case of leaks. Just under two hundred CGE-Tudors will be manufactured until 1944, when production ceases. Sales remained marginal because of its very high price, one hundred and fifty-five thousand Francs, the price of three Citroën eleven-horsepower Citroëns at the time, in other words a car without a market.
 
But Grégoire remained a figurehead of EV innovation until the second resurgence of the 1970s. We should anticipate and underline his commitment to EV in one of his books written during the 1970s, in the midst of the oil crisis, which echoes the above-mentioned comments by M. E. Hospitalier on urban pollution: "... the first time that the oil crisis was over, the company's commitment to EV was to reduce the amount of pollution in cities. Towards the end of the century [...] the city car should be electric [...]: "Is it logical to run conventional four-seater vehicles with an average speed of 13 km/h with only one person on board, which can reach 150 km/h? Without forgetting the frequent stops during which the burnt gases poison the atmosphere...". Finally, his premonitory idea (1975) to "develop and improve public transport by replacing a large proportion of petrol cars with small electric vehicles".
 
Two other innovations were introduced and are worth mentioning for their revolutionary design during this period. The electric Breguet, designed by the engineer and aircraft manufacturer of the same name, whose aerodynamic shapes were clearly reminiscent of those of airplanes.
 
Electric Breguet
 
It is produced in two versions, seventy and seventy-two volts, one with forty and the other with eighty copies, for a maximum speed of forty km/h, an autonomy of sixty to one hundred kilometres, its cost is also very high (79,000 francs).
 
And the electric egg of P. Arzens, engineer-designer, curious ovoid vehicle of a light aluminium alloy, three hundred and fifty kilograms, with its single suspended driving wheel, with a range of two hundred km for a speed of sixty-five km/h, but a unique prototype.
 
Electric egg from P. Arzens
 
The ban on building cars after 1942 (due to the war effort) put a stop to the development of EVs and the thirty or so manufacturers of this period. It should be pointed out that, at the time of this return to grace, EVs still seemed to remain at the strict level of experimentation. Whereas the combustion vehicle, as soon as it made its comeback after the end of fuel rationing (1949), enjoyed innovative commercial management.
 
The three main French manufacturers each successively offered three new models in direct response to popular demand: the Renault "4CV" (1947); the Peugeot "203" (1948); and the emblematic Citroën "2CV" (1949). The latter was reborn in a different context today, namely tourism. It is both the vehicle of tour operators in some French cities, but also that of a "vintage" Franco-French image, peaceful rurality in the shadow of bell towers. Its design is sympathetic, round and elastic, it is first of all the parish car of the (good) country priest. It is available again today in leasing to serve the image of the fashionable and distinguished wedding, but it is still not electric! After the war, the car industry was dominated by the oil lobbies, and innovation was more on the side of combustion engines than electric motors. The latter then represented the rearguard.
 
Frank Pecquet, Lecturer: Digital Art - Researcher: Aesthetics/Creation and Sound Design - University of Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne
 
Header photo C.'s "The never satisfied". Jenatzy, 1899
 
 
 

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