THE FUTURE AUTOMOBILE (Part 6) Legends, Shocks, Research & Clean Air

Oct 27, 2013

Nikola Tesla made an EV? Introducing Mr. Fuel Cell. Breathe the cleaner air Act. OPEC sparks EVs. America's bell bottom Prius & Leaf.

The Effects of Economic Shocks and Non-market Forces on Alternatives

The Quiet Years of 1920 to 1959.

From 1920 to 1959 innovation in steam and electric propulsion seems to virtually stops. There is however, the mysterious electric automobile conversion allegedly done by Nikola Tesla. Please allow me a little indulgence to follow what I think may be myth making around Nikola Tesla. Information about his supposed vehicle was sketchy at best. Tesla was said to have had a Pierce Arrow's engine replaced with an 80 horsepower AC motor. He also inserted a box that measured a little more than 3 feet long and 2 feet in diameter, which was filled with electronics and vacuum tubes. A 12-volt battery powered the box. Connected to the box was a 6-foot antenna that was attached to the back end of the car. The car was said to be able to travel indefinitely and could reach speeds of up to 90 miles per hour. Tesla purportedly explained the power source as being "a mysterious radiation which comes out of the ether," "it is available in limitless quantities," and that although "he did not know where it came from, mankind should be very grateful for its presence."1 When I was first doing research for this study the website Tesla Wardenclyffe Project, Question and Answer Forum completely contested the story. "The story of an electric Pierce Arrow that has been spread around appears to be a total fabrication." However, today that site adds much more information on Tesla's efforts to influence others to do hybrid vehicles, and focuses on his work on hybrid electric systems for ships and trains. They even point out that Tesla's first practical installment of AC power generated by Niagara Falls and transmitted to Buffalo, NY was used to power electric trolley cars around the city.2

Nikola Tesla's Wardenclyffe lab building and tower for broadcasting radio and wireless electricity. c.1904.

The reason why I enter this story in this report is that Nikola Tesla was unlike any other inventor that we have ever known in modern times. His inventions in his day were often labeled as fantastic, not having been invented or delusions, inventions that later on have turned out to be real. For example, he is now considered the true inventor of first radio, something that was attributed to Guglielmo Marconi during his life. He was scoffed at for saying that he could power the Paris World's Fair from the east coast of the United States, something that got Tesla labeled as insane during his lifetime, however, it is something we now know that through the power of the Tesla coil and broadcast energy he probably could have done. His financier J.P. Morgan stopped his attempts at establishing broadcast energy since broadcast energy would have removed the need for copper wire to transmit energy. Copper sales were one of those things that J.P. Morgan counted on to make his millions. Because of Nikola Tesla's interest in advancing the benefit of his technology for mankind and not for profit, mainly wanting things like energy to be free and accessible by everyone, he was often labeled as socialist and communist, as well as being labeled crazy, a madman, delusional, a snake oil salesman, and a flimflam artist by capitalists and the mogul owned media of the time. I believe they did so mainly because they feared that Tesla, with his particular genius, could deliver on his egalitarian leanings. Some of his greatest detractors were sometimes the very people who were his financial backers as was George Westinghouse. The image of the mad scientist that pervades a great part of the 20th century was based on the person of Nikola Tesla due to his being maligned in newspapers and the like.

 photo Parkes_zps96e4cb6b.jpg
A Radio Telescope is a device used in radio astronomy for detecting and recording radio waves coming from stars and other celestial objects. (The American Heritage Dictionary, Houghton Mifflin, Updated 2009)

Nikola Tesla's understanding of the practical physics of the world around him went far beyond the ability of people of his day to understand. Probably the best example of this was Tesla's demonstration of a working radio controlled boat at a Madison Square Garden exhibition on electricity during the agrarian, horse and buggy days of 1898. To the people observing this at the time it must have looked like a trick, rather than a practical application for the use of radio waves, radio waves being something nearly everyone of that time period knew nothing about. An electrically powered boat would have been enough to astound them.

Much of what Tesla has produced has changed our world, such as AC electricity, X-ray photography, and radio. He dabbled with broadcast electricity, geothermal energy, electric AC induction motors, radio telescopes, turbines and more. It wouldn't surprise me in the least that Tesla understood something about the world and the Earth that could have powered an electric vehicle. Remember that a crystal radio doesn't need batteries because it is powered by the radio waves themselves.

Although I was unable to find hard evidence of the Tesla vehicle, I was able to find out that Tesla tried to convince Heinrich Rudolf Hertz the discoverer of radio waves that his interpretation of radio waves was incorrect. Tesla tried to get Hertz to understand that Earth currents and not airwaves induced radio signals. Hertz was disappointed at what Tesla had to say. Tesla, not wanting to have discredited Hertz but engage him in a vigorous discussion of the science, left regretting the encounter.17 Many scientists of Tesla's day understood or believed in an all-pervasive "ether" that conducted electromagnetic waves. Tesla referred to them as "electrostatic thrust" being conducted by Earth currents and transmitted through the all-pervasive ether.20 I believe that Nikola Tesla's "ether" may have been his way describing what we call "Dark Energy and Dark Matter" today.

Tesla's descriptions of "Earth currents" and "ether" link closely to the story of his mythical electric vehicle. I look at today's radio telescopes that pick-up broadcast energy from stars billions of miles away and wonder if Nicola Tesla didn't have a better understanding of this phenomenon from our own Earth or even from our Sun, unfortunately in a time frame of just after 1900. Tesla was said to be, by the scientific legends of his time, far beyond their understanding of the physical world. That is why I have chosen to include this story in my study even though it has been labeled as a fabrication elsewhere.

 photo 059013_zps963eb6ff.jpg
Tractor, developed by Allis-Chalmers Research laboratories in 1959, bares the banks of fuel cells which provided the electricity to power this research vehicle.

After the stock market crash and depression of 1929 interest in alternative fueled vehicles wanes since nearly all of the surviving alternative fuel companies go out of business. Outside of the legend of the Tesla car little innovation comes to the forefront for automobiles until 1959.

In 1959 Francis Bacon demonstrates a five-kilowatt fuel cell system.3 A fuel cell is an electrochemical devise that turns a fuel into electricity. That same year Dr. Harry Karl Ihrig uses a modified Becon fuel cell and demonstrates it in a tractor.4 Ever since then every few years there is a surge of a tremendous amount of research money flowing towards fuel cells accompanied by periods of great enthusiasm but little advancement when applied to automobiles.

Regulation Begins

In 1960 innovation begins again only this time the motivating factors behind the sparks of innovation are government regulations. "The Air Pollution Control Act of 1955, was the first in a series of clean air and air quality control acts."5 It is important to understand that the law passed in 1955 was the beginning of clean air legislation. Clean air legislation was revisited in 1963, 1967, 1970, 1977 and 1990, producing changes to automobile pollution standards at almost every visit. American's new concern with pollution and in particular the pollution produced by automobiles lead Walter Laski to found the Electric Auto Association in 1967.8

 photo 7037420167_4f71bad773_h_zps53f1c5cf.jpg

GM was the first organization to look into electricity as a way to reduce or eliminate car pollutants. It began work on the "Electrovair," a converted Corvair in 1964, and an electric van called the "Electrovan," a converted GMC Handi-Van.6 These became largely test platforms for various electric fuel technologies. GM's first version of the Electrovan was powered by fuel cells in 1966. The 1966 version of the Electrovair tested silver-zinc batteries. GM in Europe converted an Opel Kadette to electric drive and used it to test zinc-air batteries. In 1960 Ford, believing that the battery was the main contributing factor to hindering electric vehicles from entering the automobile market, began the development of a sodium-sulfur battery.7 In 1991 Ford demonstrated its sodium-sulfur batteries in its "Ecostar" demonstration vehicle. Ford abandoned its efforts with the sodium-sulfur battery in 1994 when it caused fires in the EV prototypes. In 1967, with funding from the United Kingdom, the Ford Motor Company unveils a tiny electric car called the "Comuta" at the Geneva Motor Show. Ford of Britain stated at the time that there would be millions of vehicles like it available in 5 to 10 years. The vehicle, however, was never moved beyond a prototype.19

 photo stirlec1.jpg
Ad published by GM introducing a series hybrid the Stirlec1

In 1969 GM introduced to the world through its Opel division the Stirlec1, an experimental prototype conversion of its most popular European vehicle. It was equipped with a Stirling engine and an electric drive train, what we call a series hybrid. It was said to be able to get 84 miles to the gallon and, more importantly for the time, produced minimal emissions.

The Market Dynamics of the Energy Crisis of the 1970 for Alternatives

By the 1970s the United States automakers had consolidated down to four major companies, American Motors, Chrysler, GM and Ford. They enjoyed immense sales feeding the largest car market in the world with gas guzzling automobiles. The public didn't seem to care since gasoline was inexpensive. Import cars were hard to come by and extremely hard to service, that is for foreign vehicles outside the universally available Volkswagen Beetle. Japan had tried to send small cars into the U.S. market, with little success. However, that was about to change. In the early 1970s Honda introduced the tiny Civic CVCC that could meet the states new emission standards without a catalytic converter.18 The Honda was a solidly built little car and when the oil crisis hit in 1973, these well-built, energy efficient cars from Japan gave Americans there first glimpse at an alternative to the bloated, gas guzzling monstrosities coming out of Detroit.

Nevertheless, as gasoline efficient as the vehicles were, they still had to be filled up with gasoline, and in the oil crisis of the 1970s, this meant waiting in long gas lines, paying exorbitant prices and possibly being told that there was no more gasoline. It was no wonder people, who when faced with the realities of the time, began to look for alternatives.

Electrics Rise Again

According to the U. S. Department of Energy's web site the two most influential electric cars of the period of the oil crisis in the 1970s were Sebring-Vanguard's CitiCar, and Illinois Electric Car Corporation's Elcar 2000 Wagonette.

 photo 3626a_zpsa88db2a1.jpg
Bob Beaumont's Sebring-Vanguard, CitiCar

Bob Beaumont, a successful Chrysler-Plymouth dealer in upstate New York, was the founder and owner of Sebring-Vanguard, the manufacturers of the CitiCar.9 One day, while at his country club, Bob Beaumont got the crazy idea that a souped-up golf cart was the solution to the oil crisis. From 1974 to 1976 some 2,200 vehicles were sold. It may be hard to believe but that made Sebring-Vanguard the 6th largest automobile manufacturer in the United States. Bob Beaumont's CitiCar was unquestionably the most successful electric car from the days of the Great Depression to the oil embargo era.

Manufactured in Sebring, Florida, the CitiCar was powered by a 3.5 horsepower motor drawing electricity from eight 6-volt lead-acid golf-cart batteries, the vehicle weighed 980 pounds without batteries and 1,400 pounds with batteries. The vehicle had a range of 40 miles in warm weather and a top speed of over 30 miles per hour. It also was tiny, two feet shorter than the VW Bug and wedge-fronted. When sold in one of its standard colors of yellow, it looked like a wedge of cheese on its side. It held 2 passengers and its outer skin was made of football helmet plastic.

Soon after its establishment Bob Beaumont was ousted from the company. He lost a great deal of his personal wealth when Sebring-Vanguard went bankrupt soon after. The CitiCar had been regulated out of existence for its inability to withstand crashes to the then very rigid standards. Since then safety standards have been rolled back. The concept, however, seemed so strong that others picked up the actual pieces of the company and began producing a car that was almost identical to the CitiCar in 1978. Form 1978 to 1987 a new company called Commuter Vehicles Incorporated produced the Comuta-Car, Comuta-Cab and Comuta-Van. The Comuta-Van was aimed directly for use by the post office, which bought some vehicles but never placed a large order. The Comuta-Car was essentially a re-worked Sebring-Vanguard, CitiCar, with a more powerful electric motor and the batteries moved out from under the 2-passenger bench seat into the front and rear bumpers that extended them out to give the vehicle greater crashworthiness. Hundreds of cars were produced, and many are still in operation.

 photo elcar_zps8185d281.jpg

In 1974 a new car company was launched that also produced a car that looked to solve the problems of the fuel crisis of the 1970s. That company was known as the Illinois Electric Car Corporation of Northlake, also known as the Elcar Corporation. Elcar produced the 2000 Wagonette,10 designed by Zagato of Italy. The car was a lot like the CitiCar; a tiny, 2-door, 2-seat, light electric vehicle, with a top speed of 45 mph and a range of 60 miles. Five hundred Elcars were produced from 1974 to 1976.11 However, the Elcar was priced at $4,000 to $4,500, a lot of money in those days especially for a micro-mini car.12

Detroit's Lumbering Giants Begin to Move

Every time someone mentions electric vehicles in those days there was a convulsion from a consortium of companies with ties to Detroit. In the 1970s American car manufacturers were unable to change quickly to the oil crisis at hand. By the time the U.S. auto industry reacted to the crisis the automobile industry had profoundly changed. The most successful exploiters of the crisis were the Japanese automakers. Their small, fuel-efficient cars, with welded body construction and solidly built parts made huge inroads into the once locked American car market. I remember Detroit car executives crying that they simply could not produce a small car that made money. However, the oil crisis gave them no choice.

American Motors Corporation(AMC) and a company called Electric Fuel Propulsion converted AMC Hornets to electric propulsion and called them Electrosports. The Electrosport was said to have a top speed of 69 mph and a range of 73 miles at a constant 40 mph. AMC produced the vehicle from 1972 until 1976. 13

The Long Slow Road of Government Involvement

While the American economy was reeling from the oil embargo with its seemingly ever worsening fuel shortages, some politicians and government officials began to think that there should be funding for research into alternative forms of automobile propulsion. With the federal government picking up the tab, Detroit companies begin to move towards alternatives years from when the crisis began.

The success of the Electrosport led to AMC being awarded a contract by the United States Post Office. "In 1975 the United States Postal Service purchased 350 electric delivery jeeps from the American Motor Company to be used in a test program. These jeeps had a top speed of 50 mph and a range of 40 miles at an average speed of 40 mph. Heating and defrosting were accomplished with a gas heater. Total recharge time was 10 hours.14

 photo a5a052d6-cd42-467f-8e0e-e3abb43aa4fa_zpsd9b41c0d.jpg

By 1978 the federal government began to realize that the energy crisis had fundamentally changed the economic landscape. A move away from gold backed monetary policy to a free-floating value of money woke America up to the fact that oil had a profound influence on the cost of everything we consumed. People believed that we had an oil-based economy and the oil rich nations of the world were at the controls. The United States was not energy poor, making the "Energy Crisis" a true misnomer. However, America's energy was no longer in oil. Oil had reached its peak production period and was seeing the beginnings of a decline. America's fuel resource was in coal. "The amount of demonstrated reserves considered recoverable with the current technology is more than 296 billion tons, enough to last almost 300 years at current levels of use."15 If we could convert all the coal we had into oil it would be a century or more before it would be depleted.

How does one convert coal into oil? You can convert coal into something that approximates petroleum. Hitler did it in World War II, and in countries like South Africa it is used to produce diesel today. However, most of our coal is used to produce electricity. Most of the oil we produce is used to make gasoline or diesel. By having cars use electricity rather than oil we switch from oil to a mix of fuels, coal currently being the largest one. At the same time we get back a great deal of control over our economy by reducing our dependence on foreign oil. I am not advocating that our electricity come from coal. I am just pointing out that when we switch from gasoline to electricity, we lower our dependence on oil.

 photo 7dedf61c-4270-4372-b2c4-888a3239ce5d_zps4ed1d2b1.jpg

During the oil crisis time a theory was proposed that a way we could get back control of our economy was to make automobiles far more energy efficient. The idea was that this in turn would reduce our need for foreign oil, believing that the only reason we were purchasing foreign oil was that we could not locally source the entire amount we needed from within the boarders of the United States. By reducing the amount of oil consumed we would go back to just using only the oil drilled from Texas and the rest of the U.S. so the theory went. This idea is still argued this way today, but reality and economics dictate that price and cost would most likely determine where the oil would come from, and since foreign oil is typically cheaper to produce than domestic oil, one would assume that oil would first come from abroad. The efficiency argument to reducing our dependency on foreign oil by making cars more efficient ended up having the opposite effect. What had occurred was that far more of our oil ended up coming from cheaper foreign sources. Over the years since the oil embargo the amount of oil from foreign sources has increased significantly as a percentage of oil consumed. According to USA TODAY in 1973 we imported an average of 3.2 million barrels of oil a day. In 2012 we imported an average of 8.5 million barrels of oil per day. 16 We still import vast quantities of petroleum into the United States however, with the application of fracking techniques and new discoveries of oil in the U.S., we have vastly increased the United States production of petroleum while the worldwide price of oil has solidified behind a futures index. The high price of petroleum worldwide has made harder to reach oil, such as deep-water drilling, arctic-circle oil and oil in shale, more profitable. It has also made harder to process oil such as tar sands oil more profitable as well.

ETV-1 was a project by DOE to provide US automakers a complete working and ready to manufacture electric vehicle in 1978.
ETV-1 documentary Pt. 1.
ETV-1 documentary Pt. 2.

Even though it took the federal government a long time to start looking for solutions to this crisis, it did manage to sponsor a research program that looked into the concepts of the electric and the hybrid vehicle beginning in 1978. The program was funded with millions of dollars by the federal government and produced several vehicles that focused on electricity for propulsion. Both electric and hybrid vehicle working prototypes were developed. The results of the program and study were presented in a report to Congress in 1982 titled, "The Future Potential of Electric and Hybrid Vehicles - Princeton." Two of the electric vehicles produced were named the ETV-1 and the ETV-2, ETV standing for Electric Test Vehicle. The ETV-1 and 2 were produced as a joint project by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, General Electric (GE), Chrysler and the Department of Energy (DOE). The capabilities of the ETV-1 that used lead acid batteries was impressive; top speed was regulated at 70 miles per hour, the range was typically 75 miles in stop and go city traffic, with recorded ranges of 100 miles at 45 miles an hour and 117 miles at 35 miles per hour. Outside of figuring out what to do with the windows, the federal government with the help of the partnering major American manufacturers through this project produced ready to manufacture market ready electric vehicles. From the metal stamping molds, to the specially designed power electronics, to regenerative braking, battery watering systems and an automatic brake lock system to keep the car from rolling when stopped, the vehicle was complete in almost every way. Nearly all U.S. manufacturers needed to do was to set up the production lines and market the vehicle. The program/study produced hybrid electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids as well.

 photo HTV1-1.jpg

The HTV-1 from "The Future Potential of Electric and Hybrid Vehicles" study was a full parallel hybrid like the Toyota Prius. The study states, "The electric motor of the HTV-1 ... will power the 'primary-electric mode' of urban driving at speeds below 31 mph. A 4-cylinder, 60-horsepower fuel-injected ICE [Internal Combustion Engine] will operate on demand for bursts of high acceleration during the primary-electric mode, and will provide the primary capability for higher-speed driving." If you have ever driven a Prius you would recognize immediately that these are the very characteristics of how the Prius operates. The difference being that the U.S. government made the prototype happen for it nearly two decades before the Toyota Prius came to market.

Reading the study and discovering how far we had come with research on electric vehicles and hybrids in the late 1970s, research specifically designed to help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, the economic shocks associated with our dependence on oil, as well as to help American automobile manufacturers compete with the onslaught of fuel efficient vehicles coming from abroad, disheartens me to think that American automakers chose to not use it. It disheartens me even more that Toyota and Nissan have managed to take the ideas from that research and create viable vehicles now competing with U.S. automakers. Just think about where Detroit would be today if the U.S. automakers simply followed what the research was saying and taken the gifts given them by the federal government and paid for by its largest group of customers, the American tax payer.

1980 Dead Stop

By the 1980s Ronald Reagan had made it into office. He instituted a program that removed price controls on oil, allowing free market economics to govern supply and demand for oil. This made gasoline prices increase rapidly and the prospect of making big profits convinced the oil producing nations to produce and sell more oil. This created a glut of oil on the market and prices came down. Letting the price of oil float free seemed to allow prices and supply find equilibrium between supply and demand.

In the 1980s the oil crisis was over and so were any attempts to fund any research into alternative forms of automobile propulsion. Also, many burgeoning rules that had anything to do with fuel economy, emission standards, safety requirements and the like that were in the legislative pipeline were halted or voted down. Pollution standards were rolled back quietly in most eastern cities. The bumper strength requirements that torpedoed the CitiCar were halved. Everything took a back seat to a broken economy on the mend. Deregulation was the rule of the day. The electric car and the alternative fuel vehicle were relegated again to the backyard tinker and the mad scientist. Still, the people of Los Angeles had more and more trouble breathing.


Economic shocks like those of the oil crisis allow for opportunities for change, but they are unpredictable as to whether those changes will be permanent or temporary. In the case of the electric car the opportunities lasted only as long as the advantages for using electricity were there. Once the advantages were gone the market returned to its former pattern. Market forces reign supreme and only sustainable competitive advantages or differentiations will win the day in the long run. Alternative fueled vehicles on the market of the time, cars like the CitiCar and the Elcar, only had the crisis supporting it and nothing else. These vehicles were not aesthetically attractive, they were not comfortable, their ranges were small, their charge-times were long and they lacked other common amenities of the conventional automobile. Once the oil crisis was over there were no reasons to buy these cars. On the other hand, the Japanese produced fuel-efficient small cars during the crisis that had fewer manufacturing defects were solidly built and dependable. After the crisis, the Japanese improved on quality, sold cars with many more standard features and produced bigger more comfortable cars. The United States automakers had not effectively responded to the challenges coming from Japan in the years just following the oil embargo. The American automakers had improved in many ways but the Japanese every year capture a greater share of the American car market because they worked harder at meeting the needs and wants of its customers.

The lesson learned here is that electric vehicles may always be different from conventional liquid fueled vehicles, however, to enter into the marketplace and stay, they have to appeal in every other way to the visceral desires of the car purchasing public. That means an alternatively fueled car needs to be perceived as safer, have greater performance, be more comfortable, have more gadgets, look great and more. Then when the crisis is over there are other reasons for owning and purchasing the car.

1 Tesla's Electric Car (Accessed on May 10, 2004)
2 Tesla Wardenclyffe Project Question & Answer Forum, (Accessed on May 10, 2004)
3 SAE International, History of Fuel Cells, (Accessed May 10, 2004)
4 Williams, Edward D. H., A Time Line Of The Electric Automobile, (Accessed May 8, 2004)
5 James R. Fleming & Bethany R. Knorr, History of the Clean Air Act, (Accessed May 11, 2004)
6 SAE International, History of Fuel Cells, (Accessed May 10, 2004)
7 Electric Vehicle Timeline, Newton Public School System, 2003 (Accessed 29 April 2004)
8 EAA EV History, Timeline (Accessed May 8, 2004)
9 Taylor, Barbara, The Lost Cord: A Storyteller's History of the Electric Car (Accessed May 8, 2004)
10 1976 Elcar, Hemming's Motor News, (Accessed May 10, 2004)
11 Some EV History, Econogics.com, 2003 (Accessed May 1, 2004)
12 U.S. Department of Energy, 2004 (Accessed May 1, 2004)
13 Some EV History, Econogics.com, 2003 (Accessed May 1, 2004)
14 U.S. Department of Energy, 2004 (Accessed May 1, 2004)
15 Scott Beveridge, Facts for Fighting Ignorance, (Accessed May 11, 2004)
Now at http://www.jandjenergy.com/ffi.html on October 19, 2013.
16 U.S. Oil supply looks vulnerable 40 years after embargo, USA TODAY (Accessed October 20, 2013)
17 Cheney, Margaret, Robert Uth, Jim Glenn, Tesla, Master of Lightning, page 66, Barnes & Noble Publishers, 1999 (Accessed October 26, 2013)
18 CVCC, Wikipedia.org (Accessed October 26, 2013)
19 Hoyer, Karl Georg, The history of alternative fuels in transportation: The case of electric and hybrid cars, Utilities Policy Volume 16, Issue 2, June 2008, Pages 63-71 (Accessed October 20, 2013)
20 Invention of radio, Wikipedia.org (Accessed October 26, 2013)

Times Article Viewed: 12465


blog comments powered by Disqus