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Lack of early power grids in US prevented electric car dominance, study finds

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Electric vehicles could have become the default form of personal transport if the US electricity system had been more developed in the early twentieth century, researchers have said.

A new study from Lund University in Sweden suggests that if electricity grids had spread just 15 or 20 years earlier, a majority of US car producers would have likely opted for electric cars instead of those powered by internal combustion engines (ICE).

A broad political commitment to a universal electricity grid was introduced in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, but came decades too late, the researchers said.

“It is a common notion that electric cars were technically inferior and more expensive. We find that this is not entirely true. Electric cars were more expensive, but not relative to their performance. In addition, the average range was surprisingly good because early cars were light and relatively small,” said associate professor Josef Taalbi.

The team used a database of more than 36,000 American passenger car models to conduct the research.

“According to our estimates, electric cars were cheaper to drive in the 1920s thanks to cheap electricity. Switching to electric cars would have meant a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the order of 20 million tonnes of CO2 in 1920 alone”, said Hana Nielsen, postdoctoral fellow at Lund University.

The results show that most car manufacturers chose to produce gasoline cars as early as the beginning of the twentieth century. Access to local electrical infrastructure came out as the single strongest factor in predicting whether a producer chose electric or gasoline propulsion.

“The slow expansion of electricity infrastructure meant that many producers early on chose to invest in gasoline cars instead of electric cars,” Nielsen added

“Part of the problem was that the electricity market for households was not profitable for private electricity producers.

“A broad political commitment to a universal electricity grid was first realised in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, but that was decades too late for the electric car. We can also see that the expansion of good road networks tended to benefit electric cars, implying that these were more dependent on the extent and quality of road networks.”

The researchers said that car manufacturers chose technology based on what was available to consumers at the time. Although the electricity network expanded in coming decades, this did not cause a shift in propulsion because ICE vehicles were already dominating the sector.

“Other factors also played a role. It has been highlighted by historians that the electric car was branded a luxury and ‘women’s car’, while the gasoline car was seen as an ‘adventure car’, which was appealing to male consumer groups,” Taalbi added.

Nielsen said that with regards to the current climate crisis, their research supports the idea that large-scale investments in infrastructure are crucial for achieving sustainable transport and energy systems.

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