Professor examines the history of the electric car

By SABRINA ABRAMS and SOPHIA LIPKIN | September 5, 2019

Erica Schoenberger, a professor of Environmental Health and Engineering, gave a talk titled “What Really Happened to the Electric Car?” on Tuesday. The lecture highlighted why the internal combustion engine has triumphed in the car market. 

The talk was part of the M. Gordon Wolman Seminar series, sponsored by the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering.

Schoenberger explored the historical influence of the market in allowing the internal combustion engine to drive the electric car out of existence, noting that while the market creates choices for consumers, it also eliminates them.

She explained the various factors that led to the continued dominance of the internal combustion engine over the electric vehicle, citing a range of economic, social and competitive causes, including the Ford Motor Company’s decision to utilize the internal combustion engine. 

John Boland, professor emeritus of Geography and Environmental Engineering and research professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Hopkins, stressed in an interview with The News-Letter that the interdisciplinary nature of the lecture made it particularly compelling.

“It’s really interesting to have a seminar that’s sort of the history of technology as opposed to just technology, to hear all of the social and technical and political things that went into something as important as the automobile industry,” Boland said. “It gives a different dimension, a different perspective.”

According to Schoenberger, the development of the electricity industry contributed to the death of the electric car. The industry was structured around lighting, rather than power, and it was prohibitively expensive, meaning that it was not ideal for the electric car industry. Furthermore it developed too late to accommodate the more recent growth of the electric car industry. 

Schoenberger explained that the gendered structure behind purchasing power decisions also led to the dominance of the internal combustion engine. She said that though women found internal combustion cars difficult to drive, their preferences were not incorporated into family purchasing decisions. As a result, women had limited influence over the market.

Schoenberger also detailed the influence of Henry Ford, the American industrialist best known for founding Ford Motor Vehicles and popularizing the assembly line method of production, promoting the internal combustion engine and hindering future development of automobile technology. In 1913, when he implemented the first moving assembly line for the mass production of an automobile, the price of Ford cars was greatly reduced. At the same time, the falling costs of internal combustion cars relative to electric cars meant that electric cars were priced out of the market. 

“The price of electric cars sort of overlapped with the price of gasoline engine cars in the beginning of this period, but as time went on, the electric cars got more and more expensive, and the internal combustion engines declined in price,” Schoenberger said. 

However, she emphasized that while it is easy to look back on previous technological activity and speculate about what might have happened, it is impossible to be sure which decisions would have led to particular outcomes. 

“It’s kind of traditional to say, ‘Oh gosh, if we had only continued to do research on batteries we would have made much more progress,’” she said. “Of course, you can’t really say whether or not that’s true.”

A prevalent theme throughout Schoenberger’s lecture was the drive of economic and social necessity behind social innovation. She described how researchers failed for years to see the importance of developing more advanced electric battery technology. However, in recent years, Tesla has benefited from beginning to invest heavily in battery development.

“Nobody was working on it, [and] it didn’t seem like an important problem. Until someone really, really, really wants to deal with it, you don’t get there. So Tesla really wants to do it, and it’s thrown a huge amount of resources at developing batteries,” she said. “It costs a lot of skill, but you can see that when there’s a will, there’s a way.” 

She also pointed out the immense impact that such technological improvement can make over a long period of time.

Schoenberger concluded her lecture by highlighting the importance of examining what decisions in the past have led to the relative lack of choice in the automobile industry in the present. 

“It’s a story of contingencies,” she said. “If the electricity industry had been more mature, if women’s voices could be heard, if Henry Ford had not had his incredible insights, if he had not chosen the internal combustion engine, you could have had a different history.”

She said that the limited availability of options is unfortunate because even if internal combustion engines had still dominated the market, electric vehicles might have had an opportunity to play a larger role and thus could have helped reduce net emissions. 

“You could imagine a world in which [United Parcel Service] and FedEx vans ran on electric power, in which second cars in the family ran on electric power, in which in-town cars ran on electric power. And that would have made a big difference if all of those contingencies had turned out differently,” Schoenberger said. 

She reiterated the need to analyze past industrial choices. 

“I guess it’s unfair of me to say if things were different, then history would have been different. But one thing I want to stress here is that this is not only about us making poor choices,” Schoenberger said. “You have to ask how choices are produced.”

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